For those in the US trying to get through this Mother’s Day ♥️
There is both a weighty and a light-hearted point to this post.
The weighty part is this. The way in which we are cared for in therapy, if we have a deep and trusting relationship with our therapist, changes our cells. It protects us in the sense of keeping us connected to our selves and to a richer and more complex understanding of the world. Though I haven’t thought of myself in terms of my diagnosis for a long time, this quote reminds me of Marsha Linehan’s words, that “people with BPD are like people with third degree burns over 90% of their bodies. Lacking emotional skin, they feel agony at the slightest touch or movement”. Being cared for in therapy gives us a protective, emotional skin. The world has less power to hurt us – not just because our greater sense of self and self-worth can withstand it, but because the way in which we see the world has changed. We see it through the eyes of someone who loves us and sees the ways in which we add to the world and are at home in it, rather than through the distorted lens of those who could not validate us and never really knew us.
As an aside, I find the image of my therapist’s caring being ‘in my skin’, particularly poignant. It is a way of experiencing her touch – something I have often wished for, but which, in its physical sense, is outside our therapeutic framework.
The light-hearted point is this. I discovered this quote because I finally got round to starting Harry Potter (having watched the films but never read the books). My therapist has, on a number of occasions, used examples or metaphors from Harry Potter, and she has often encouraged me (particularly for the sake of my kids!) to try the audio book versions, read by the wonderful Stephen Fry. But it was the recommendation of a different audio book, from another wise someone (you know who you are!), at the start of the Easter therapy break, that finally convinced me to try audio books, having previously had my reservations about them. I love reading – looking at words, absorbing them and savouring them in my own time, immersing myself in them – and it was difficult to imagine having the same experience listening to a book being read. I was right in one sense – it is not the same experience – but it can be a fantastic one nonetheless!
Having listened to a handful of other books, I took up my therapist’s recommendation (though for myself, rather than the children!) and started listening to the first Harry Potter. I’m moving through the books and loving them – not just the stories and words themselves, but the wonderful way in which Stephen Fry conveys them, changing voices for all the characters, and moving (seemingly) effortlessly between them.
But even this light-hearted discovery has a weighty side to it. In discovering audio books, I have discovered something that I think will be vital not just to recovery, but to ongoing well-being and looking after my mental health. The Easter therapy break ended up being incredibly fruitful for me, in terms of new realisations, internalisation of new ways of seeing,and deepening of my relationship with my therapist. It felt as though I made numerous small but very significant shifts in my understanding and perceptions. Looking back, I believe that without realising it, I gave myself a break from rumination and down-spiraling thoughts for long enough that I was able to remain on a fairly even keel emotionally. The lack of ‘distraction’ from negative emotions and perceptions, then allowed a period of growth to take place. And the key way in which I gave myself a break from rumination and down-spiraling thoughts, was by filling the time and space when I would usually be engaged in those ‘activities’, with listening to audio books instead.
I tend to think of driving and cooking as being my ‘processing periods’ – but in reality, there is little ‘processing’ and much ruminating going on during those times. By giving my mind something else to do and concentrate on, I am essentially trying to rewire my brain so that the well-worn pathways of rumination and negative thoughts have a chance to start to ‘grow over’, and new pathways can begin to be laid down instead. My therapist likened it to walkers wearing a deep scar into the face of a mountain, by treading the same ground that has already been visibly worn down. It’s much easier to stick to the (literally and metaphorically) down-trodden paths, than to carve out new ones. However, if traveled on enough, the new paths become easier and easier to tread, and the old ones lose their visibility and appeal. I’m not sure there is enough Harry Potter (even with the later books!) to take me through that rewiring process, so I will have to find a new literary immersion, later. But for now, they are a great joy, and I can thoroughly recommend them! Metaphor and stories are great allies in the work of psychotherapy, and particularly in the later books, it is clear that J.K. Rowling has a deep and nuanced understanding of the demons of the mind….
Last week I attended an event in which Susie Orbach, the well-known British psychotherapist and writer, talked about her latest book, ‘In Therapy – the unfolding story’, based on the very successful Radio 4 programme of the same name. In conversation with author Jill Dawson, and in response to the audience’s questions, Susie talked honestly about the therapeutic process, and her own experience of it. It was a fascinating and inspirational evening, and I wrote about it for the therapy website welldoing.org:
If you have the opportunity to hear her talk, don’t miss it!
Sigh. I am procrastinating. I feel a great need to write about a number of major aspects of my therapy over the last few months, and in particular the mass of swirling thoughts and ideas that have been gathering, drawing together, pulling apart, coalescing, over the last couple of weeks of the Easter therapy break. But there is so much I want to say, I have no idea where to start, or how to make it all hang together. I have written far less over the last few months, for a number of reasons, but in large part because I have been trying to work with my therapist to keep more of the material of therapy within the sessions themselves, and therefore to deepen and increase the spontaneity and vitality of our face to face time. In that sense, I have seen the decrease in writing as going hand in hand with the cessation of email contact between sessions.
For me, writing serves a number of purposes, and I need to be conscious of those purposes which may no longer be appropriate, or which may even be counter-productive. Writing is one of my escapes from the world, and it is my attempt to process things alone, internally, and without reference to, or support from, anyone else. This was incredibly helpful for me in the past; but where there is a temptation to let it function as a substitute for talking things through with my therapist and allowing her to support me in figuring things out, I am trying to do something different instead. I have been trying to make brief notes and then to tell my story verbally, within relationship, rather than in writing, in front of my screen.
Writing can be helpful in gaining perspective and in reducing the intensity of emotion, because it enables us to externalise a situation and set of feelings. I often have the sensation that I am ‘writing something out’, in the sense of ‘getting it out of my system’. And often once I have poured something onto the page, I feel more detached from it – it feels much less a part of me. But it is precisely for all those reasons that writing can also be unhelpful for my work in therapy sessions. Once I’ve written about something, I feel like I have already told my story. Which in one sense, is true – but I have told it in a way that completely misses out any interactivity and response from another person, and any experience of what it feels like not just to tell my story to another, but to have it open-heartedly heard and received.
I find it very difficult to feel motivated to ‘re-tell’ a story I have already written, and when I do, it invariably feels flat, and as though I am reciting a series of events, rather than being engaged – both emotionally and intellectually – with what I am describing. There is no immediacy of feeling; I’m not re-experiencing emotions in the way I often am when I am writing. I remember an occasion a few months ago, when I tried to talk about an experience in session, which I had already written about in a blog post. I remember how grateful I was to my therapist for persevering in asking numerous questions (unlike her usual style!) to try and keep me talking and keep me on topic. It must have felt rather like dragging blood out of a stone, but it ended up being a really positive and helpful experience, and much more beneficial than the writing process had been.
But – creativity is hugely important in healing and wellbeing, and when your main creative outlet is writing, you cannot simply stop. And so I think I have been pulling back from it too much, or rather not pushing myself enough, to keep it as a regular part of my life. Perhaps I am feeling this so strongly now, because I am in a therapy break without my usual three sessions a week and, as often happens during a break, my brain is trying to process and consolidate a huge amount of information and experience. And without my therapist to talk to, the outcome of that processing and consolidation has to manifest outside myself, in some other way. If I cannot experience the ordering of that internal experience via a relational conversation, I have to create something on the page that gives it form.
But I’ll have to do it another time. Right now – I’m not quite sure where to begin…..!
As if any further evidence were needed of the state of my subconscious, following yesterday’s post ‘Fear and fantasy’, here is a lighthearted little anecdote (in a dark sort of way) which made me smile (in hindsight), and I hope might make you smile too 🙂
I was listening to the audio book of ‘The beginner’s guide to dream interpretation’ by Clarissa Pinkola Estes , in which, amongst other things, there was a description of the process of Jungian dream analysis, which involves identifying the nouns in a dream, and making associations to those nouns. In order to illustrate this, Dr Pinkola Estes used an example.
In her dream-example, she said that she “went out into a field, and in the field there lay the body of a woman, and out of her body grew flowers”. She then proceeded to talk about her own associations to the nouns ‘field’, ‘woman’, ‘body’, and ‘flowers’. Here is what went on inside my head as I listened to her words….
Her: What do I associate to the body of a woman? What do you associate?
Her: My association is curvaceous, beautiful, soft, yielding…..
Me: That’s strange and disturbing, and a little disgusting – that can’t be right……
Me: Wait………..what? Is this body ALIVE? Ohhhh……
Me: Hang on, did she not say the body was dead? Let’s try and remember. Nope. She never said that it was a dead body – just that it was a body.
Her: What do I associate to flowers…..? Flowers to me are extremely healing…..
Me: Great. I just thought they were grave flowers, flowers of DEATH, because they were growing from or close to a DEAD BODY….
Me: My subconscious is. Clearly. F****d [retrospective editing]
In a couple of previous posts, I have talked about my ‘yoga imaginings’ – images and scenes, a little like waking dreams, that come into my mind when I’m in Yin yoga class. Last night’s class focused on the ‘kidney meridian’, and I was a little apprehensive because I don’t think I’ve yet managed to get through a kidney meridian practice, without crying. My yoga theory is almost non-existent, but for those who possess even less than I do, a meridian in yoga and in Chinese medicine, is considered to be a pathway in the body through which vital energy is said to flow. The various pathways are associated with key organs, and the key organs are associated with various senses and emotions. After a couple of occasions of tears streaming down my face during ‘kidney meridian’ yoga classes, I did a little reading online and discovered that the ‘negative’ emotion most associated with the kidneys, is fear. I certainly have a huge amount of that.
In a ‘standard scene’ from these imaginings, I’m standing on a beach, often with my therapist. The beach is an image of my inner safe space – my yoga teacher said that she imagines herself in a cave, but that feels far too claustrophobic for me. Last night, I was standing on the beach with my therapist, and God was with us. Probably because he’s the only other person I’m letting near me and into my head at the moment, and that’s after many years of keeping Him at arms’ length. He was at least a foot taller than me, thin, and he wore a black suit, which seems a rather odd image to associate with Him – particularly when standing on a beach.
I looked behind me and saw a long line of people, standing in pairs – a little like the animals waiting to go into the Ark. I had the impression that they were people who loved me – or were waiting to love me. And I just crumpled into a heap, held up by God on one side, and my therapist on the other. I was appalled, and scared; I felt overwhelmed.
Getting to know aspects of my subconscious over the last few months in therapy, has been painful, disappointing, shocking, surprising, and demoralising. I know there are parts of me that don’t want to change; I know that on some level, I don’t want to like myself, or see any good in myself, or believe that I matter. But I think last night was the first time I understood how much fear I hold, at the thought of being loved by people. I have always known that I wanted to be loved by one person – and I always believed that that would be enough. Over the last year or so, I have attributed that to my mother’s emphasis on exclusivity – that all other love than hers was inferior, replaceable, and fleeting. In the past, I have felt contemptuous of those who I thought loved me ‘too much’ – whether that was the little boy at school who complemented me on my outfits, or one of my relatives, who used to shower me with gifts and money when I was growing up. But this sense of fear and overwhelm at the thought of being loved not just by one, but by many (or even a few), was a new realisation. Though I haven’t really had the chance to process it yet, I think that part of what underlies the fear is a question – what do they want from me? – and the belief that they will somehow carve me up and take me for themselves, and that there will be nothing of me left.
The bell for the end of the yoga pose rang, and that image ended, but the next scene took place on the same beach. I saw two characters which had been absent from my imaginings for a long time, though they were some of the first to make an appearance when I started yoga. They were ballerinas, dressed in white tutus – a little Afro-Caribbean girl of around five or so, and a blond woman in her twenties. They were both aspects not of a person, or of me, but of what I thought of as spirit, or something external and more powerful than me and my internal parts. I never called this set of characters ‘God’ (though they were trinity – the third being a dark haired teenage ballerina), but they exuded wisdom and commanded a sense of awe and respect from every other character in my imaginings. When they danced, everyone else fell silent, and simply watched.
This time, however, I realised despairingly that the ballerinas were not actually present. Their image was static, and flickered, like the picture on an old TV screen. It was as if, having been absent for so long, they were now simply a memory; a faded, flat, insubstantial presence. I hated it. I wanted them to become real, to walk out of the screen on which it now appeared, their images were projected. I willed it, with all my strength, but the picture still flickered, still stayed flat. With mounting frustration, I grabbed a knife and ripped the fabric projection screen, from top to bottom.
In the quiet of the front row of the yoga class I gasped, audibly, and tears welled up as I reached out my hand, eyes still closed, for a tissue. I think that for a split second I had imagined that the ballerinas would walk out, bodily, from behind the curtain screen. Instead, I looked out through the tear, and onto an enormous and consuming storm. I’m not sure how to describe it: hurricane, tornado, wind, lighting, thunder, chaos, devastation – all on a massive scale. No structures were visible, only the sheer tumult, confusion, force, and destruction of the elements. I know how ridiculous this all sounds – while you picture us sitting there on our yoga mats with quiet music and in (almost) perfect stillness – and yet I cannot describe how shocking, horrifying, and real it felt, in the moment, gazing through that curtain in my head.
Re-reading what I’ve described, it seems that the words I have put to my experience are these: I tried to look through my projections to get to something real, and what I glimpsed was terrifying, destructive, and chaotic. I encountered, amongst other things, a visual, visceral, representation of my last few months of struggle in therapy. I have been lost, emotionally, and grappling, intellectually – trying to find approaches, solutions, answers. Everything sounds persuasive, but nothing seems capable of breaking through, to my feeling core. Well, if what I saw is what’s waiting to be broken through to, quite frankly, I’m not surprised.
That image only came once. The yoga pose ended, and during the next one, I saw myself sewing up part of the tear in the curtain screen. My therapist was sealing up other parts of it, only – don’t laugh – she didn’t need to use needle and thread, as the torn edges stuck together simply at the touch of her hand. There was a sense of closing up something painful, for another time. For a time when I might be more equipped to deal with it. My mending left visible scars, reminding me of my self-harm. My mending took great effort, and the outcome was ugly. My therapist’s mending was effortless, and after it, everything looked just like it did before. I thought of the power of her metaphorical touch, which I have wonderfully benefited from, and about the potential power of her physical touch, which I will never experience. Now there’s a storm that brewed and then simmered, and doesn’t need stirring.
Perhaps God on the beach would tell me that I gazed on an image of eternal destruction; if not of the ‘after-life’ sort, then either on the current state of the destructive and self-hating parts of me, or on the damage that they are capable of inflicting. Which may as well be eternal – from my perspective – if they lay waste to the rest of my life. In the religious imagery of my sub-conscious, it requires a death to rend that curtain into two that divides us from relationship, and there is a darkness to be walked through before restoration is possible. For the last few months my whole being has felt like either a battlefield or a desert – and I have no idea who it will be, ultimately, who ends up biting the dust.