Life in a Bind – BPD and me

Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and my therapy journey. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org. I write for welldoing.org under the name Clara Bridges.


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Flushing out Facebook

A really thought provoking post that struck a chord with me. These days I mostly use Facebook to keep up with news and articles from mental health charities and organisations, and to keep up with some mental health communities and bloggers, for example, Make BPD Stigma Free at https://www.facebook.com/MakeBPDStigmaFree?ref=br_tf and Lonely Lotus at https://www.facebook.com/thelonelylotus . As a source of information and community/support of that kind, it can be an excellent forum.
However, I do think that the purely ‘social’ face of social media can be very difficult for many people, and particularly so for those with mental health difficulties. There is an increasing body of research and literature in this area, highlighting both the positive and negative effect of social media on mental health. Personally, I can attest to the fact that in the past, Facebook has been both massively triggering and addictive for me, and over the last few months I have increasingly come across numerous mental health bloggers who have said exactly the same thing. This post provides a forthright and amusing look at the potential traps and trigger points of Facebook – do head over and have a look!


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Waiting to fall – BPD and obsessive attachments

*TRIGGER WARNING* – descriptions of obsessive/hypomanic feelings

[The quotes at the beginning of each Part of this post, are from ‘The Buddha and the Borderline’ by Kiera Van Gelder.]

Part I – What

“Of the three poisons that obstruct the mind’s clarity…..attachment is the most difficult of the afflictions. You have to be constantly vigilant, or it will take over your mind.”

Sometimes I wonder what love feels like. What it feels like for other people, and how they would describe it. Some people say that ‘love is not a feeling’, by which they mean that love is a matter of the head as well as the heart, and that feelings must be backed up by actions, or at least be consistent with one’s actions, otherwise love is just an empty four-letter word.

So often, love feels like an empty four-letter feeling. When I try and cast my heart-eye inward, to try and pinpoint what it feels like, it’s as if I’m searching in the dark, groping for something utterly elusive. Sometimes that disturbs me. At other times, I convince myself that it’s just a question of a perfectly natural inability to describe the indescribable. That it’s not a question of some deep flaw within me. And yet –

I can tell you with absolute clarity what obsessive love (or attachment) feels like. It’s almost as if the quality of reality itself is dependent upon the intensity of obsession – if a feeling is not completely overwhelming me and taking me over, then it’s as if I’m not feeling it at all. In a way that is very hard to describe, it’s as if I know there is a feeling there, but I’m not quite sensing it. I feel it – but I don’t feel it. Maybe it’s just a matter of terminology – maybe there’s no actual difference between the two.

Or it could be that the difficulty stems from the calibration of my emotions. On my emotional Richter scale, the magnitude ten earthquakes completely overshadow the the magnitude four tremors. It’s as if having been exposed to the thumping bass sounds of music at full volume, my senses have lost the ability to hear a full range of sounds. Intense emotions drown out all other music – I can feel the vibrations, but I cannot hear the melody. The opposite of intensity feels like emptiness – even when there’s something there.

Part II – How

“As soon as I’m touched, all of my power drains away and I’ll become a supplicant again.”

In my own drama of obsessive love, there are two players – The One Who Chases, and The One Who Falls. I think and feel very differently about them. I despise the game playing of the first, and am moved by the vulnerability of the second. I don’t want to accept the former, but I’d like to hold the latter in my arms. I suspect my therapist would tell me that the ‘two’ are just one little girl, looking for something that is missing. That I’m ‘splitting’ her out into all-bad and all-good. In which case, I ultimately have to either disown them both or embrace them both together.

The initial stages of a relationship are heady for many people, and the excitement of the ‘chase’, or the thrill of the flirtation, is intoxicating. I don’t think there is anything unusual in that. But for me, there is an incredibly addictive quality to those feelings.  I can’t imagine a more powerful drug, or a more potent high. I wish that I could plug you in to how it feels, when I’m in the grip of that rush. I wish that I hook you up to my IV, so that whatever’s flowing through my veins, could flow through yours too. If I imagine it, it looks like liquid gold. If I sense it with my eyes closed, it feels like bundles of electricity bouncing around inside me, trying to get out. It’s a whirlwind of breathless expectation and thought in action, all swirling around a centre of powerful invincibility. The perfect storm. The perfect calm.

I flit from one thought to another – I am all over the place, but also just in one place. The place of this feeling, here and now, over-riding everything else. I see with perfect clarity. I shut my eyes to feel a little deeper. Rational mind slowly recedes and the focus of my inner mind narrows down to the width of a pin. I shut my eyes, and it feels like I’m standing at the top of a rollercoaster, about to jump on and join the ride. It feels like I’m waiting to fall.

The ‘falling’ happens when I’m not watching. Before I know it I’m caught in the grip of something just as intense, and just as addictive. There is nothing exciting or euphoric about this phase of obsessive love. It is horribly painful, and it is all-consuming. The One Who Chases is under the illusion that she is powerful and in control, although I know that that’s a lie. But the illusion gives her strength, and allows her to revel in the chase. The One Who Falls knows that she is powerless and helpless; that she is in the grip of something, and someone, that she cannot control.  She is at the mercy of her intense emotions, and The One Who Chases has abandoned her to them, defenceless and alone.

When I’m in this phase of an obsessive attachment, the other person becomes my entire world. They are my first thought upon waking, and my last thought at night. They are a place (either in reality, or in my head) that I escape to constantly and willingly, losing myself in every conceivable way. As desperately as The One Who Chases wants to take someone else over, the One Who Falls wants to be entirely taken over and engulfed by the object of her attachment. This phase of obsessive love is so painful because although I idealise the centre of my universe, they are always only human, and always just beyond my reach. Connectedness feels only ever partial, and my neediness is like a well that just gets deeper, the more I try and fill it.

Apart from a need for intensity, the One Who Chases and The One Who Falls have one other thing in common. They both long to be touched. The One Who Falls wants to be touched in order to feel loved. The One Who Chases wants to be touched in order to feel alive. And that is her undoing. Her illusion of control unravels, and she has to leave the stage. A single touch can floor her, but it’s The One Who Falls who ends up in a heap, horrified at the spotlight thrown upon her need.

Part III – Why 

“Why does this always happen? …..it’s a reflection of some sort of deep trouble – a desire that eclipses reason and takes me over…”

It’s very easy to judge ourselves for our obsessive attachments, and to hate ourselves for them, particularly as they can lead us to behave in ways that we may consider to be ‘out of character’ or even ‘wrong’. Sometimes, despite the pain, it feels that there is a certain beauty to obsessive love. It feels self-sacrificial in its other-centred-ness. Love is often described in personified terms –‘love is patient’, ‘love is kind’. But although obsessive love can feel self-sacrificial, it’s more like a force, than a person. And as a force, the darker side of it can sometimes be devoid both of reason, and of morality. It’s not that obsessive love chooses ‘wrong’ over ‘right’  – it’s just that in a world taken over entirely by the object at its centre, nothing else seems to matter.

But rather than judging myself for my obsessive attachments, I am trying to figure out what they can teach me. Rather than trying to find the fault within myself, I am trying to find the explanation. Let me be clear – I am not trying to whitewash painful situations or make excuses for hurtful behaviour. But there is a reason (or a multiplicity of reasons), for our obsessive relationships. This is not just ‘the way we are’, where ‘the the way we are’ is an indirect way of saying ‘broken – cannot be mended’. For me, I think obsessive relationships are about two things. They are about what was missing, or what became twisted, in terms of childhood attachments. But they are also a coping strategy.

More than one therapist has suggested to me that my obsessive relationships were a way of coping with life. It seemed an odd idea at first, but looking back, the truth of that explanation is obvious. Those relationships, whether ‘in my head’, or played out in reality, all occurred at particularly difficult or dark times for me. They were an escape, they took me (mentally) out of the situation I was in, and they gave me something else to immerse myself in. They were a distraction of the most powerful kind. I used to wonder why I only started self-harming a couple of years ago, until a therapist once again suggested that it was because I was replacing one coping mechanism with another. Obsessional relationships may have been a ‘readily available’ coping strategy in the past, but given changes in circumstances, such as working, and being a wife and mother, they could no longer operate in the same way.

A friend of mine recently gave me an incredibly helpful way of describing what is going on with me, in situations when I might otherwise be tempted to judge myself. She said that I was ‘processing something’. It seems to me that that is a much kinder way to talk about the patterns of obsessional relationships that we can fall into, while also motivating us to try and discover what is really going on.

‘Processing’ can mean so many things. It can mean becoming obsessed with your best friend; it can mean having an internet flirtation with someone you barely know; it can mean ‘falling in love’ with someone in a position of power. And sometimes, it can mean inappropriately trying to push boundaries with someone that you are just starting to trust. I have been so busy keeping watch on The One Who Falls, and guarding against the possibility of developing feelings of obsessive love in the context of my current therapy, that I didn’t even notice when The One Who Falls opened the door for The One Who Chases to come out and play. On the one hand, I want to lock her away keep her behind closed doors. On the other hand, I know that there could be no safer environment for her to play in. No other place in which she can be herself, without fear of condemnation, or without risk of causing long-term hurt to others or to herself.

So in the name of ‘processing’, as deeply uncomfortable as it may feel – let the games begin.

 

 


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The new therapy: from house to home?

My love affairs with poems are like my love affairs with people – I like to be immediately captivated. It was one such love affair a few nights ago that led to my recent post of the Edward Thomas poem, ‘The New House’. My eyes kept coming back to the page – back to the last verse, in particular. It spoke to me of something – but I wasn’t quite sure of what.

The writer and poet C.H. Sisson once said the following of Thomas: ” He said what is in the poems, and there is no message beyond them.” If that is the case, I hope Thomas would forgive me for playing fast and loose with one his poems, and using it as a metaphor for something very far removed from his original intentions. For after all, the poem is, as it says, about a ‘new house’. A house, which, by all accounts, he was not particularly fond of. However, given the fact that he suffered bouts of depression throughout his life, perhaps he would have more sympathy with my analogy, than it might at first appear.

I realised, as I reflected on why I might have felt drawn to the poem, that not for the first time, I had formed an image of therapy as a ‘place’ – a house, even. I had always thought that therapy should be a ‘safe place’ and the therapist a ‘safe haven’. The phrases have the connotation of something that surrounds you and contains you, and keeps you from harm. Therapy does of course take place in a physical space, but it also creates a mental space in which to metaphorically lay down one’s burdens, and to ‘just be’.

A few months ago I had a vivid dream, part of which involved arriving at what I knew to be my therapist’s house, even though it looked completely different. I looked through the window into a neat and tidy room – the furniture and ornaments waiting peacefully for the house’s inhabitants to return. I turned away and when I looked again, the room had completely changed. The furniture was upturned and thrown around the room – some of it was covered in dust-sheets. It was a picture of destruction and abandonment – there was no peace, and no one was coming back.

My therapist suggested that my dream might be about therapy, and immediately I knew that to be true. The change within the room was an image of what I had been planning to do to our therapy – perhaps even something I had already started to do. After six months of ‘trying to keep the peace’ with my new therapist, who I struggled to connect with, I was making efforts to try and resume sessions with my ex-therapist. I was planning to abandon her, and in effect to destroy the fragile work that we were doing together, and any prospect of an ongoing therapeutic relationship.

She told me recently that she felt I had been keeping her at arms’ length. That I had ‘kept her under wraps’, just like the dust-sheet covered furniture in the abandoned house. In the language of a four-phase model of psychodynamic psychotherapy, originated by Harold Searles and described by fellow blogger ‘BPD Transformation’, I think that so far, my therapist and I have inhabited a place of ‘ambivalent symbiosis’. A place in which my struggles to trust her have resulted in a sense of frustration, wariness, and a constant tug of war within me, as I yearn to pull closer, and then fight to push away at the first sign of disappointment or perceived rejection.

My therapist said that it takes time to establish a therapy – at least a year. In that context then, our therapy is still in its infancy. Our therapy is still a ‘new house’, and until now, I have often felt so very alone in that house. My future, and the future of our therapy, seemed very bleak. We spent months talking about ‘old griefs’ and the loss of my ex-therapist. The possibility of recovery seemed remote as I didn’t see how I could ever make progress in an environment where my ambivalence towards her left me so often feeling uncared for and misunderstood. ‘Nights of storm, days of mist without end’ – that seemed an apt description of the climate of our therapeutic relationship.

But perhaps it is an indicator of how things are changing, that for me, the final verse of Thomas’s poem offers a glimmer of hope and of optimism – of reassurance and of comfort. I’m not sure that was his intention – it may be the opposite of how he felt when he wrote those lines – but it’s why I chose to overlay his words on a picture of a house with a flower growing in the foreground. New growth, over old pain.

‘I learnt how the wind would sound, after these things should be’. Those lines have lodged themselves in my mind – they speak to me of constancy, stability, and endurance. The wind was there at the beginning – and it will still be there when all the nights of storm, days of mist, and griefs have been experienced. And it will sound the same after those things have passed, as it did before. For someone on the roller-coaster of BPD emotions, fearing abandonment and lacking in trust, that kind of constancy and endurance are priceless attributes, to be clung on to when we find them in others, even when we most fear being rendered helpless by them.

A massive leap of the imagination; an inappropriate stretch of interpretation? Maybe – but I feel very strongly that I am just entering a phase of ‘learning how the wind will sound, after these things should be’. After ‘ambivalent symbiosis’ comes ‘therapeutic symbiosis’ – a phase in which the borderline patient comes to deeply trust the therapist. With that trust comes a belief, I think, in the therapist’s enduring desire to help the patient, and to accept them unconditionally. In that sense, the therapist becomes an immutable force for good in the patient’s life.

But the belief in those aspects of the therapist and the therapeutic environment do not generally come automatically – they are slowly learnt, slowly internalised. The transition from ambivalence to therapeutic symbiosis takes time. I am only at the threshold of that transition. But I do feel as though I have started to learn. I feel as though I am actively trying to put together a picture of my therapist as someone who cares and who accepts me. As someone who doesn’t change, even when my view of her does. I have the sense that even though I can’t see how and when I will start to wade out of the quagmire of BPD, or how therapy can possibly help me to deal with the bottomless pit of longing and the unquenchable thirst for intensity – maybe she can.

I am learning how the wind will sound after these things should be. I am learning that the sound of her voice  – even the sound of her silences if I can learn to acclimatise to them and to trust them – could be my constant and my comfort through sad days, ‘when the sun might shine in vain’. But also through the times that follow the sad days.

The final of the four phases is individuation – when the borderline starts to function more independently, and needs the therapist less and less. It is in the phase of therapeutic symbiosis that true therapy and real progress takes place, and I know that somewhere between that phase, and individuation, there is a mountain for me to climb. I know that far from leaning towards individuation, I am starting to strain again at the call of enmeshment. Far from wanting to separate out, I am starting again to want to fall inwards towards someone else’s sphere, and to lose myself completely.

So I have a very long way to travel, and I’m not saying that I have had a major shift in worldview, or that I will never doubt my therapist again. I am sure that I will continue to ‘split’ her into all-good or all-bad at times, to idealize and to devalue her by turn. By I do feel much more at home in this ‘new house’ than at any time since I entered it. I want to lift the dust-sheets off and put them all away. And if occasionally I push over all the furniture, like a toddler in a tantrum, I want us to pick the pieces up together, and put the room to rights again.

It seems to me now, that my original analogy is not quite right. The best therapy is not just a house to keep you safe. A house is a particular type of dwelling. But a home is where you feel that you belong.

 

 

 

 


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Self-harm: a few thoughts

*TRIGGER WARNING*

I admit it. I have an interest in self-harm. I feel almost guilty for saying it – as if I’m admitting to having a morbid curiosity in an inappropriate and forbidden subject. But that’s simply indicative, I think, of the fact that it’s hard to escape the feeling that self-harm is a taboo subject, even within the mental health community, and amongst those for whom it is very much a part of life.

I remember one occasion, soon after a fellow BPD blogger and I started corresponding outside the context of blog-posts, when we hesitantly started to explore the subject of self-harm in our messages, and to ask each other questions. It was clear that we were interested in the other person’s self-harm – how, where, why – but at the same time felt uncomfortable and guilty for being so curious. But it was also clear that we both felt a profound sense of relief (and almost of liberation and excitement) at being able to talk about this so personal of subjects, with someone else who really understood, and didn’t judge. Our ‘morbid curiosity’ was born simply out of a desire to know that we were not alone, that we were accepted and acceptable, and to try and understand more about what self-harm meant to each of us, and what it means to others.

Many of those who self-harm feel a sense of guilt, shame or self-loathing at doing so.  Those feelings can lead to a self-perpetuating cycle in which more self-harm is used to try and cope with the intense negative feelings about one-self, associated with the act of self-harming. These negative feelings can be compounded by fears about how others might react to, or perceive, the behaviour, and the fact that self-harming carries a great deal of stigma within our society.

I am very thankful that I do not personally suffer a sense of guilt or shame at my self-harm, and I feel a huge sense of compassion for those who do. I do understand the cycle of negative feelings leading to more self-harm, although in my own case, these tend to be feelings of immense frustration and failure when self-harm ‘doesn’t work’ in adequately dealing with the feelings it was meant to address. I also understand the fear of stigma and lack of understanding from others, and this was brought home to me in a powerful way by the reaction of a friend of mine, when I admitted to her that I am an active self-harmer. Her shock, shocked me. The fact that, on the basis of this one revelation, she felt that she no longer knew me (although indeed, she didn’t) – shocked me. I still find it hard to fully understand others’ reactions to self-harm. I’m not in any way advocating self-harm, or trying to undermine the immense and courageous efforts of those who struggle daily to stay free of it. It’s just that, although it sounds somewhat bizarre, for me personally it felt like such a logical way to cope with pain. It still does.

However, I know, even if I cannot fully understand, that self-harm does indeed elicit strong reactions from others, and that those reactions are often based on fear, ignorance, and misconceptions. And my own experience of that ignorance and misconceptions, in the context of a supposedly ‘safe’ therapeutic environment, has given me a strong desire to write about self-harm, and to try, in my own small way, to address those views, and to help others understand.

And not just those ‘on the outside’, but those who self-harm as well. My own understanding of ‘my hobby’ (as a very accepting friend of mine describes it) has been greatly helped by reading both personal experiences and research studies of self-harm. Although I don’t feel great guilt at self-harming, perhaps it is testament to my innate perfectionism and my sensitivity to invalidation, that I have  felt very troubled, in the past, by the sense that I wasn’t ‘doing it right’. That if my self-harming didn’t fit a particular stereotype, then it wasn’t ‘real’ self-harming at all (and therefore, by implication, neither was my pain, or my diagnosis, real). Reading about others’ diverse experiences of self-harm has helped me to feel less alone, and to really appreciate that self-harm means different things to different people, and different things to the same person, at different times.

I want to write about the misconceptions. About the view that self-harm is a ‘young person’s phenomenon’; that it is manipulative or attention-seeking; that it is a failed suicide attempt. About the view that self-harm is always impulsive; that the pain inflicted is proportional to the pain felt; and that one can simply ‘choose to stop’ self-harming.

I want to write about the motivations. About the need for comfort and control; the desire to punish, either oneself or others; the desire to either feel more, or to feel (or think) less, or nothing at all; the ‘silent scream’ or cry for help. About the experience of wanting to ‘make the inner, outer’, and to give mental distress a physical form; the habitual nature of self-harm and how it can become part of one’s identity; and the fear of not self-harming, which can lead to pre-emptively self-harming in order to cope with upcoming, rather than present, stresses.

But for the moment, I just want to say this.

I admit it. I have an interest in self-harm. And for the sake of the thousands of those who suffer, in one way or another, and who use self-harm to both express and cope with that suffering – I hope that you do too.


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The dialectic of two Katys

“Dialectics”  is a concept in which opposites can be integrated in order to reach a closer, and constantly evolving, approximation to the truth.

There is a certain logic to my randomness – please bear with me. And if the logic is purely my own, I apologise, and would invite you to embrace the randomness, ignore the dialectic, and just enjoy the music.

This post has been born out of the following three things:

My own love of the Katy B song, whose words really resonate with me, and which I often have playing on repeat.

My children’s love of the film Madagascar 3, which incorporates the Katy Perry song, and which I have now seen almost as many times as I have listened to the Katy B song. [Incidentally, it’s amazing what repeated watching can do to the brain. Initially I thought that Madagascar 3 had been created by someone whilst on hallucinogenic drugs. Now I think that it’s a work of genius. Make of that what you will.]

My reading of ‘The Buddha and the Borderline’ by Kiera Van Gelder (which I can heartily recommend, purely on the grounds that although the author’s circumstances were in many ways quite different to my own, I often felt as though she was holding up a mirror to my thoughts, feelings and behaviours). As Dialectical Behaviour Therapy was a key part in the author’s journey of recovery from BPD, the concept of dialectics occurs frequently in the book.

Somehow, these three things came together in my brain, in a way that made a certain kind of sense. The challenge, as with any dialectic, and particularly for me, given my BPD, is to try and hold the words of the second song, alongside the first, without the one negating or diminishing the other. To see that they can both be true, at the same time, and that the reality of one perspective, does not erase the reality of the other.

I immerse myself in the one prevailing feeling, as I do in the one prevailing song that is the soundtrack of my life at any one moment. Perhaps I need to try and mix it up a bit. It may help me to reach a closer approximation to the truth about myself and about my place in the world. It would certainly help my children to broaden their musical tastes beyond singers whose names start with the letter ‘K’.

Katy B – Crying for no reason

“I push all my problems to the back of my brain
A darkness deep inside where I just can’t find my way
How can I walk with a smile? Get on with my day
When I deceived myself pretending it’s all okay.

I tried my best to hold it all together, I know
The strings have worn away and now I’m all exposed
I try to hide it all away on top of the shelf
I can lie to everyone but not to myself.”

Katy Perry – Firework

“You don’t have to feel like a waste of space
You’re original, cannot be replaced
If you only knew what the future holds
After a hurricane comes a rainbow.”

[Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) was developed by Marsha M. Linehan as a form of psychotherapy specifically designed to help those with self-harming and suicidal behaviours and those with complex mental health disorders which involve severe emotional dysregulation (including Borderline Personality Disorder). It combines cognitive behavioural techniques with concepts of distress tolerance, acceptance, and mindfulness. In DBT, acceptance and change come through dialectical progress, in which thesis+antithesis=synthesis.]