When you have BPD, hope can feel like such a precarious state. Any hint of it feels more like ‘hoping against hope’: hoping in the face of hopelessness; hoping even when one is abandoned by hope. We’re so aware of the shifting nature of our sense of self and the volatility of our emotions, that we cannot believe that hope will last. We’re so used to every positive situation being tinged with something dark, that sometimes hopefulness simply feels like misery in disguise.
I remember being asked by a therapist a couple of years ago, what I would want if she could just wave a magic wand and make anything at all happen. I sat there with tears rolling down my face, completely unable to think of anything to say. It wasn’t a case of not being able to decide, or not knowing what I wanted. It was the fact that the very concept of a future – any future, let alone one that was ‘better’ than the present – was completely unthinkable. I simply could not see beyond the present pain, and hadn’t been able to, for quite some time. The ‘future’ spoke of hope – but I had been abandoned by hope.
A few months later, a different therapist referred to the progress I had been making in one particular area, as ‘a success’. My resulting tears seemed to baffle her, but somehow I found it difficult and distressing to think of anything I had been doing, as ‘a success’. Success had always been so important to me – but having a reached a state in which I felt little control over my life, and had little self-esteem, the concept of succeeding at anything, was also unthinkable. It was too painful to be praised. ‘Success’ spoke of hope – but I had been abandoned by hope.
They say that hope sustains life – but it seems to me that love sustains life long enough to give birth to hope that that sustenance will continue. If I felt abandoned by hope, it was because I felt abandoned by love. Abandoned in the present, and in a way that I’m still trying to properly understand, abandoned in the past. I remember very clearly the strong desire, when growing up, to be loved unconditionally by someone who did not have the biological imperative to do so. My ex-therapist called this ‘confused thinking’: I thought that parents were programmed to love their offspring unconditionally, and yet in her mind, this was a contradiction in terms. Love is not about programming but about acceptance – and while thinking that my parents loved me unconditionally, I was also very aware of the areas in which I ‘fell short’, did not meet expectations, or was something other than what I was desired to be. Hence the need to be loved by somebody who chose to love me – choice implied acceptance, something I did not feel I had.
For the first time in a long time, this week I felt a glimmer of hope. Not hope in the face of hopelessness, but hope in the face of possibility – the possibility of recovery, and the possibility of change. For the last couple of weeks I had come away from my therapy sessions hurting immensely. Incapable of asking for reassurance directly, I allowed fears over lack of acceptance to spiral out of control, such that everything my therapist said (or didn’t say) contributed to the excruciating sense that I was unwanted, disliked and uncared for. In my last session I could barely speak, paralysed by fear of further hurt and an overwhelming desire to just shut down. I was drifting in and out of being emotionally present, but she reached out to me, and gradually, we began to work through how I was feeling, and I managed to be honest with her about my need to have her articulate her feelings and her reassurance clearly.
Ultimately, that session gave me a glimpse, more than anything else has ever done, of the transformative power of the therapeutic relationship, and that glimpse has given me hope. I have always struggled to understand how psychotherapy works and how it can lead to recovery. Although I enjoy the satisfaction of uncovering the subconscious and making links between the present and the past, I have always known that therapy is not an intellectual exercise, and the more I find out about myself, the more I wonder what I am meant to be doing with the information. Equally, although there is a certain cathartic release in connecting with powerful emotions during therapy, re-experiencing past trauma does not lead to change if the experience is simply a repetition, with the same end result, and no corrective emotional re-interpretation.
However, there were three amazing outcomes from that session that have resulted in the hope that I cling onto now. I realised that although it is easy for me to feel hurt, it is also easy for me to feel loved. That feeling is very hard to hold onto, but that is why I need my therapist’s reassurance and caring to be explicitly stated – I need to hear the words, so that I can remember them, and so that I can recall them when I need them most. Those words and phrases don’t just help to build trust, they are the foundations of that trust, because their recollection can help to keep the whole edifice from crumbling (as it did for me over the last couple of weeks) when it is the subject of internal attack.
With growing amazement, I also realised that my therapist had responded to my needs and had made a commitment to continue to do so. It’s hard to explain how deeply it touched me to know that someone was trying to meet me ‘where I was at’. To know that I had been heard and my viewpoint accepted; to know that I hadn’t had to justify how I felt or be ashamed of it; to know that it was possible for me to voice my feelings and my needs, and for something to change as a result. I still find it hard to get my head around, and it still feels awe-inspiringly humbling.
Humbling, because I know how very different her worldview must be to mine, in order for her to be able to respond in that way. To be able to respond to my needs without fear or threat of ‘losing control’, ‘being manipulated’, or ‘being pushed too far’. To be able to meet me where I am rather than either distancing herself from me or being swamped by my emotions. I used to wonder about strength of her boundaries, because I was unused to the degree of self-disclosure that she seemed happy with, compared to other therapists I had worked with. However, any doubts I might have had have been completely blown out of the water. It seems to me now, that her ability both to share some of herself and to change how she works in order to respond to me, is a function of the strength of her own sense of identity and her own boundaries. And that is why what I say or do cannot threaten her or push her away, and the converse of those qualities also explains why my own reaction to some very triggering relationships, is the opposite of her own reaction to me.
The final outcome of that session was a brief realisation just before I drifted off to sleep a few nights ago. It was a beautifully simple and surprising moment: it seems strange to call it a ‘revelation’, as the thought seems, on one level, so obvious. But it was an emotional revelation, if not an intellectual one – I knew it because I felt it, and because I felt it, it gave me hope. Feeling loved for who we are, makes us feel freer and stronger. For so many nights over the last couple of years, my comfort before going to sleep at night has derived from the pain following self-harming – the pain which felt like a big enveloping hug. It scares me to say it, but this comfort felt better.
Feeling loved for who we are, makes us feel freer and stronger. It sends a shiver down my spine. I dare not hope.
But hope I do.
[The sustaining power of explicit reassurance and caring, brought to mind one of my favourite passages from ‘Get me out of here: My recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder’ by Rachel Reiland. In that passage, Rachel’s therapist says to her: “You survived by seizing every tiny drop of love you could find anywhere, and milking it, relishing it, for all it was worth. And as you grew up, you sought love, anywhere you could find it, whether it was a teacher or a coach or a friend or a friend’s parents. You sought those tiny droplets of love, basking in them when you found them. They sustained you. For all these years, you’ve lived under the illusion that somehow, you made it because you were tough enough to overpower the abuse, the hatred, the hard knocks of life. But really you made it because love is so powerful that tiny little doses of it are enough to overcome the pain of the worst things life can dish out. Toughness was a faulty coping mechanism you devised to get by. But, in reality, it has been your ability to never give up, to keep seeking love, and your resourcefulness to make that love last long enough to sustain you. That is what has gotten you by.” ]