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.