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 and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges.


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Escape

* TRIGGER WARNING – DESCRIPTIONS/THOUGHTS ON SUICIDAL IDEATION AND SELF-HARM*

Part I

Lately it seems that my mind has been filled with thoughts of escape. Sometimes the thoughts are just there, a bit like a day dream; or in the background, filling up the spaces not taken up by life, as it happens. At other times, they wash over me like waves, taking me with them; filling me with a keen desire to break free, and to crash upon a distant shore.

Escape…..to some far off place, perhaps. What would it be like, to just run away? To leave everything and everyone behind? What is it, that that kind of escape would achieve? Who or what would I be looking for? I don’t want another romantic partner – I’m not sure anyone else would be strong enough to bear the immense strain that my mental health difficulties put on our relationship. And I know that if I wasn’t with him, I would end up in a string of twelve to twenty four month relationships, moving from one to the other in a tragic parade of almost-serial and barely-overlapping monogamy. I don’t want other friends  – I am incredibly fortunate to have a few close friends who, though mostly living some distance away, are still wonderfully supportive despite the fact that I am sometimes obstinate, self-centred, and difficult to support. I don’t believe that I would find better ones, even if I travelled to the other side of the world.

When I imagine leaving everything behind, it’s not in order to become someone else, with a new life, a new job, new friends. It’s in order to not think, feel and be, all the things that I think, feel and am. When I imagine leaving everything behind, it’s in order to be better able to retreat, without it being noticed. To be able to withdraw, without the constant need to interact. To be alone with my thoughts and with myself.

But what do I know about being alone? I have never managed it. I have always been either in the ‘parental fold’ or in a romantic relationship. Although part of me likes the idea of aloneness, I also know that it scares me. I know that in practice, it would be only a matter of time before that fear drove me into the arms of new lovers, new friends, a new life. A life still full of the same flaws, the same hurts, the same mistakes.

“She knew that the fault was not in the world but in herself, and so, it was her own self that she hated and wanted to be free of…..”. [From ‘In the Springtime of the Year’ by Susan Hill]

Part II

I know that I could never run away from this life. But my head is full of thoughts of escaping from life itself. Since my ‘therapy break’ started four weeks ago (my therapist is on holiday), I am heaping isolation upon isolation, but it is not enough. I don’t understand this drive to ‘finish what she [my therapist] started’ – to cut myself off even further, as a response to feeling cut off. I persist in not contacting those who do not contact me; I ignore those who do, though I’m grateful for their caring. I must have none of them, because I want to not be. But why, why? It’s not catching, this desire to not exist. I don’t know, I don’t know. I just know that I need to hold it within myself.

***

My eldest child asked me to help him draw a picture on my tablet. He chose a blank brown canvas, and a jet-black pen. He drew tangled lines, and then asked me to do some of the colouring myself. I drew my finger over the screen and coloured in one corner, completely black. We took it in turns, until he got bored, and I was left to finish colouring in the screen. I kept going until the whole picture  became a mirror and was covered in darkness.

Part III

My ex-therapist, Jane, asked me whether I would tell her, if I was feeling suicidal. I said that I didn’t know. Although I knew what it was like to feel desperate and to want to die, I didn’t know what it felt like to be poised on the brink, as it were – to actually be on verge of taking my own life. Under those circumstances, I had no idea whether I would tell anyone about it – but I imagined not. I wondered whether acting upon suicidal thoughts was a similar experience to the one I had had with self-harm. For a lifetime it had seemed like the very last thing I would do, and all of a sudden, I had a ‘light-bulb’ moment:  a complete shift in worldview occurred, the concept clicked into place for me, and it seemed like the most logical thing in the world. Once I realised that pain, which I was so afraid of, was not the undesirable by-product of self-harm, but the very point, and the potential source of much-needed relief, it became the obvious and rational answer to a difficult and intractable problem. Does that sound too ‘rational’, or could that also be the way in which suicidal ideation turns into action?  I’m sure there isn’t a single answer to that question – but for some, perhaps that is the way.

***

There is much debate about whether suicide can ever be a rational decision. Some claim that the desire of a terminally ill patient to take their own life, can be an example of a ‘rational’ decision to die. But the debate always seems to be between rationality versus mental illness – as if a diagnosis of the latter precludes rational decision making, at least where it concerns matters of life and death. And yet there is a growing interest in whether unbearable psychological pain may be the same as the suffering associated with a terminal physical condition, and so this may be another example of an unhelpful distinction between physical and mental illness. Perhaps the key factor is not whether or not a mental health diagnosis exists, but whether there is emotional distress. And is it purely a matter of linguistic definition that suicidal thoughts, in the presence of emotional distress, are always irrational, or is there something more going on?

A few months ago, I decided to start down a path of taking an increasing number of ibuprofen tablets (one more on each occasion), every time I was greatly distressed and wanted to self-harm (which at that time, was frequently). The decision was motivated by a desire both to damage and to prepare, as well by a need to feel in control of a part of my life. I have always found it very difficult to swallow tablets, and I reasoned that if I reached the point where I wished to take a large number of them in one sitting, it would be best to have conquered that particular hurdle in advance. And along the way perhaps I would manage, in any case, to achieve the desired self-destructive result, slowly, without the need to take ‘drastic action’. In the end, I didn’t go very far down that particular path, but that was an example of the ‘rationality’ of my emotional distress. Would a neuroscientist, looking at a scan of my brain, have been able to tell whether my thinking was ‘disordered’ at that point?

Part IV

In 1990, Roy Baumeister published an article in Psychological Review entitled “Suicide as escape from the Self.” There are six primary steps in his theory – a tick in all six boxes renders suicide a ‘probability’. A helpful summary of that paper can be found in this blog post, entitled, “Being suicidal: what it feels like to want to kill yourself”. The abstract to the article itself, reads as follows:

“Suicide is analyzed in terms of motivations to escape from aversive self-awareness. The causal chain begins with events that fall severely short of standards and expectations. These failures are attributed internally, which makes self-awareness painful. Awareness of the self’s inadequacies generates negative affect, and the individual therefore desires to escape from self-awareness and the associated affect. The person tries to achieve a state of cognitive deconstruction (constricted temporal focus, concrete thinking, immediate or proximal goals, cognitive rigidity, and rejection of meaning), which helps prevent meaningful self-awareness and emotion. The deconstructed state brings irrationality and disinhibition, making drastic measures seem acceptable. Suicide can be seen as an ultimate step in the effort to escape from self and world.”

The first four steps in the causal chain seem so easy for me to tick off, although the following is a very incomplete summary of what they entail: falling short of standards, my own and others’; not meeting others’ expectations and having my own set too high and being constantly disappointed; awareness of what I’m feeling or doing and why, but with no power to change those feelings, or for the self-awareness to change me; negative, destructive, judgemental, harsh emotions about myself. Feelings of complete lack of self-worth.

In the UK charity SANE’s latest research on suicide and suicidal thinking, lack of self-worth is one of three key factors identified, that contribute to suicide. The other two are lack of trust (in others and in ourselves), and “suicidal exhaustion”.  The SANE researchers talked to people who had attempted suicide, and one of them said this:

“Throughout all my depression I’ve always been able to be okay for other people. But I couldn’t do it anymore, I just couldn’t. And they kept saying to me, what is it, what is it? I’m going “I’m just so tired”. That’s all I kept saying, “I’m so tired”. For ages. And they were going “but why?” And I couldn’t explain what that meant, I just knew that I was so tired. And I wanted peace, I wanted some peace. And suicide was the only way.”

Part V

Back in January, I was in a deep depression. Every morning, for the briefest nanosecond on the threshold between sleep and semi-consciousness, my spirit felt light and unencumbered. But almost immediately the immense weight of fear, desperation, darkness and of wanting die, settled down upon me, and the only relief from it came at night, with the oblivion of sleep.

I’m not sure how to explain how this feeling, over the last week or so, differs. Except to say this: the darkness is not weighing me down as much, but it feels as though the tiredness, the sheer, utter psychological exhaustion, is bringing me to the end of the road. At times, I have felt calm, rather than desperate. Clear, rather than confused. I feel so little as if I exist, would it make much difference if, in fact, I did not? Somewhere, right at the back of my mind, common sense is ringing out a bell – is this the calmness of ‘madness’, of a rationality gone wrong?

***

I believe unquestionably in the benefits and importance of increased self-awareness, but living with it can be beyond painful. I’ve opened up worlds of thoughts and emotions that I was never aware of, and that I can’t now escape. And despite my protestations whenever my husband voices doubts about the possibility of recovery, I realise I have very little hope of it myself.

It feels like such a simple, logical thing. I don’t want the waves upon waves of loss. I don’t want the perpetual bitterness of the bittersweet moments. I don’t want everything that is, to remind me of everything that will, at some point, cease to be. I don’t want the constant reminders of death or abandonment. I don’t want the intense yearning for what I didn’t have or for what I can never have. I don’t want to keep remembering those that I need to forget. I don’t want the corroding regret, or the anguish of time lost or wasted. I don’t want to never be held by those I want to be held by, or to even want to be held by them.

“The world was quite empty, although the sun still shone, the birds sang……there seemed nothing whatsoever that might comfort her or give her strength and protection.” [From ‘In the Springtime of the Year’, by Susan Hill]

***

I keep asking myself, over and over again: if I didn’t have children, if death was as easy and as painless as flicking a switch, if someone else would do it for me, would I ask them to? Do I want it as much as I think I do?

***

Random thoughts keep entering my mind.

“I must fill in that form to indicate how I would want my pension lump sum to be distributed in the event of my death.” “Do pension funds pay out lump sums if death is self-inflicted?” “I need to ask my therapist if she will let Jane know if something happens to me.” “I wonder what the drug is called that vets use to put animals to sleep?” “I don’t know any vets. I don’t know any vets….”

Practical details – there must be no loose ends. But this is all backwards – how can I think of the incidentals, when I haven’t yet decided on a ‘how’, or a ‘when’? But when the impulse comes, if it comes powerfully, there must be no loose ends. Nothing left to chance.

***

The briefest, silent prayer, runs through my head. The first one in a long time. I feel guilty and irreverent – full of cheek and ingratitude. But if He’s the one who gave me life, who else can I plead with but Him, to take my life away?

 

 

 


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TAT results, anyone?

[What follows is a story I wrote as part of an online Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which I found on the website of the University of Texas. I briefly discussed these tests, and how I came across them, in a previous post (called ‘TAT, anyone?), as well as the ways in which I believe this kind of ‘stream of consciousness’  (or should that be ‘unconsciousness’) can be helpful and illuminating.

I should mention that the online test ‘broke’ a few minutes into it, in that the ‘countdown clock’ stopped running, and I did not know how long I had been writing for (this particular test involves writing continuously for ten minutes, whatever comes to mind in response to the picture below). In addition, my computer ‘froze’ part-way through. What follows, therefore, is in two sections. The first section was written before I had to restart my computer. There was then a pause of a few minutes before I started writing the section that follows bellow the dotted line. I am not sure how long I wrote for in total, but if we assume ‘typical typing speeds’, I think it’s likely that the first section took around ten minutes, and the second section another ten. I see the second section, therefore, as being not a ‘true’ part of the test, although I think it nevertheless adds to the possible interpretations. Although the second section was also written in a continuous fashion, I believe that the gap of a few minutes would have allowed semi-conscious interpretations of the first section to begin to influence what was written next. I think I can see that in the text.

What does it all mean? Feel free to speculate! For my part, I think that as with dreams, there are numerous possible layers of interpretation. I think there is the ‘immediate’ interpretation, which in this case, for me, is all about therapy, particularly as this piece was written just days after finding out that I would need to stick with my therapist a little while longer, as there were no available slots for me to resume sessions with my ex-therapist, Jane (you can read All About Jane, here). Then there is the lateral or tangential interpretation, that perhaps lies a little below the surface of consciousness and requires a bit of a ‘leap’ to make the connection. In this case, I believe it’s about the relationship between different ‘parts’ of me, and I think I can see that interpretation starting to emerge more strongly in the second section of the story. And then there’s a possible interpretation working at a deeper, much harder to access level. An interpretation that only occurred to me after I wrote my ‘TAT, anyone?‘ post. That interpretation concerns my relationship with my mother – a subject I have been careful to tell several therapists is ‘out of bounds’ as far as possible change is concerned. Perhaps I wasn’t ready to see that interpretation when I wrote the story – I’m not sure I’m ready now. But it definitely adds another dimension, and I can come back to that, if and when the time is right.

On a practical note, as the piece is written in the third person, and as I see the two characters in the story as both being women, I found that the text could be quite confusing and ambiguous at times, when it was unclear which character was being referred to as ‘her’ or ‘she’. I have therefore used bold text when talking about the woman in the glasses, and I hope that this makes the story easier to follow! The image itself is taken from the same University of Texas website referenced above.]

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TATlab

She wasn’t sure she should be doing this – the bizarre scientific experiments they were asking her to carry out. And always this strange, lonely, hawk-like woman watching from the sidelines. What did she want to know? What was she hoping to find out? Why was it so important to her? And what would happen when the experiment was finally over? When she’d found whatever it was that she was looking for, that haunted her. Would something, some part of her, drop away? Would she have no need of the glasses any more, or would it be the opposite – would she need an even more impenetrable barrier to guard her inner being from the chaos of whatever was contained in those test tubes? Was it blood? She wasn’t sure – it was the right colour, but it didn’t smell quite right somehow. She’d always been told she had an acute sense of smell, but she couldn’t tell, not this time. And there was absolutely no way she was going to taste it to find out. Although the thought of doing something to ‘perturb’ her was both tempting and terrifying at the same time.

She wondered whether in another room , somewhere down the hall, there was someone else, carrying out similar tests, with similar test tubes. Maybe another one of  ‘her was watching, keeping silent guard – or vigil – waiting for her own ‘eureka’ moment. Or maybe there were countless upon countless of them, too many to number, all performing the same, repetitive tasks, in parallel universes of isolation and containment. Always alone. She didn’t count – she was barely human.

Would she know it when she saw it? Would the significance of it hit her, forcefully across the soul, or would it be a slow dawning, an immeasurably gradual spread of light, starting to creep its fingers of realisation into hidden corners of her mind, grabbing physically at her innermost parts, so that the dawn of knowledge was almost painful in its slow, suffocating squeeze? Suddenly she realised with a jolt that they were joined, she and her, in a way that she could not really explain, but felt as certainly as she had felt anything before. Her actions, tied to her deepest needs, hopes and fears. She was a prisoner, carrying out a mission over which she had no control. But she was her saviour – only the knowledge she had to give could free them both from the prison they were in. And somehow, she suspected that of the two of them, hers were the biggest and heaviest bonds to break…..

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

Suddenly, she had an overwhelming urge to reach out and touch her in a huggably violent way – to touch her where it hurt. Not in order to really hurt her, but to release them both from the prison they were in. There had to be another way. Beyond the test tubes and the ‘blood’, beyond the never ending search for answers, behind the glasses, underneath the skin. Another way to make her whole. She just wasn’t sure whether they would both be there when it was over. Whether in the process, both would be obliterated and nothing would be left. That in trying to put her back together, and run away in the opposite direction, whatever bond connected them would rip them both to pieces.

Would the world continue to exist if that were so? In those other, parallel rooms, would those other ‘she’s and ‘her’s, still keep working, still keep searching? Or would the ripple spread and devastate, a chain reaction, unstoppable –  a tide of grief, or maybe just of mercy? The end of work, the end of questions, the end of puzzlement, the end of hope. But she knew, ultimately, that that urge would be resisted. That the two of them would carry on as now. One the watcher, one the worker. One with questions, one with answers. One with no heart, one with a fearful heart. And oceans in between them, though just a few centimetres. Elbow to elbow – miles apart. It didn’t matter, ultimately, if there were others. The two of them could be no more lonely, no more together, no more apart, than this space allowed for. It contained them perfectly, and they moulded to its shape.


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The unbearable insubstantiality of being – BPD and identity

More often than not, there is a distance of time in my writing, between the events or feelings that prompted it, and the recounting itself. Sometimes, that time can be as little as twenty-four hours, as was the case for my post on suicide. More often, it tends to be a number of days, weeks, or even of months. In general, my writing tends to be a way of reflecting on events, rather than processing them. The processing happens in my head, as the precursor to the writing, although it’s still true to say that in the writing, new revelations or new interpretations can sometimes be unearthed. But it’s fair to say that most often, when I’m in the thick of emotions, I cannot write about them until I have some perspective on them. I may write as a way of coping – but I write about something else.

But this time, I have to write ‘in the moment’. I have to write through it and write it through. I have to write it out. Perhaps it is because this moment, this emotion, keeps returning. There is no getting rid of it, and if I wait to gain some distance or perspective on it, I may wait too long, and never give it expression.

I have often heard others with BPD talk about feeling ‘unreal’, and wondered exactly what they meant, or how they would describe it. I would still like to know. ‘Anxiety Care UK’ describes ‘derealisation’ as feeling dissociated from one’s environment. To quote from their website: “The experience might include perceiving objects as unsolid, diminished in size or two-dimensional; and the self as perhaps being inside some glass-like container or peering at the world through a fog, with the world unreachable and meaningless.”

No, I don’t think that describes the emotion I’m referring to, although I often feel that life is hopeless and meaningless. I have felt the world as being ‘out of kilter’; I have felt as if I were living on my own speeding train, on a parallel track with the rest of the world, never to intersect; but I’m not sure I have felt ‘derealisation’, as described above. ‘Depersonalisation’- yes, I have felt that. The same website describes it as: “people will experience changes in self-awareness, which might include feeling as if their thoughts and actions are not their own, perhaps as far as experiencing the sensation as watching themselves from the outside.”

But this feeling that I have – it’s not depersonalisation either. My inner voice keeps offering up the phrase ‘I feel unreal’, and it is quickly quashed by my inner critic who still regularly persists in accusing me of fraud, and of ‘making up’ my mental health difficulties. “What do you mean you ‘feel unreal’? You have no right to use that phrase because those who use it actually do feel unreal – as if they don’t exist, as if they are ethereal. You’re lying to yourself. You’re not ill. You don’t feel unreal.” But I do – I do feel unreal. I don’t think it’s necessarily in the same way as some of those with BPD ‘feel unreal’, but the phrase still feels appropriate to me. It still rings true. I may not know exactly what others mean when they use it, but I know what I mean  – and this is it.

It’s not that I feel ‘physically unreal’, or that my physical being feels ethereal, far from it. My physical existence weighs me down – its heaviness makes it hard to ignore. I try to escape it by retreating inside my head, but I continue to travel through time and space while I wish that I could be less bounded; that I could somehow leave my body behind to live my life, while I inhabit a different, purely mental world. Give me the blue pill Morpheus, and let me live in my matrix of dreams.

No, it’s not that I feel physically unreal. It’s that I feel devoid of content. I’m not sure if I feel empty – but I feel I am empty. I feel as though there’s nothing there. My outer being may feel heavy, but my inner being feels utterly insubstantial. And like many aspects of BPD, that feeling is particularly present in the turbulence of the relationships with those I am closest to – my husband, in particular.

I am spirit, and every criticism blows apart my atoms like wind rushing through a cloud of smoke. Every harsh word annihilates me. With every argument and insult I lose integrity – in both senses. My decency, my character (do I have any?) are undermined; any sense of wholeness and cohesion are swept away. I am nothing, I am worth nothing. I grasp at a sense of identity but when being undermined rather than being underpinned, it feels as though there is nothing there to grab hold of. Like Schrodinger’s Cat, my state of being – full or empty, worthy or worthless – is undetermined until your looks and words give it actuality.

Perhaps, then, this sense of unreality is much more about identity, than it is about physicality or dissociation. In the landscape of the DSM IV criteria for BPD, perhaps we’re in the terrain of criterion 3: “Identity disturbance – markedly and persistently unstable self-image or sense of self”. And science knows what happens to unstable elements – they self-destruct and either reject or convert parts of themselves, in order to become something else.

Sometimes, I wish my response to feeling devoid of content was to feel devoid of emotion. Given how much I crave intensity of feeling, that’s saying something. Instead, feeling devoid of content makes me want to be devoid of life. A book of blank pages is a lifeless book. How joyless feels the task of turning every page, until the end. Feeling devoid of content looks like Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’, but on the inside. Feeling devoid of content feels like cutting across the canvas of my skin to let the sunset of ‘The Scream’ seep out. As Munch wrote, “Suddenly the sky became blood – and I felt the breath of sadness”.

Sometimes I feel like a useless sack of skin. That description chills me  – it feels horrifyingly dehumanising. One could argue that self-consciousness, a sense of identify and of who we are, is part of the essence of being human. If that is unstable, no wonder we can sometimes feel less than human. No wonder we can sometimes feel unreal. It’s not that we feel as though we don’t exist. It’s that we exist, but incompletely. It’s that we exist, but without a core. No wonder we are so afraid of caving in, and that ‘being’ is sometimes so unbearable.


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Swallowing up the storm – BPD and anger

“I am angry enough to die”. The words jumped out at me from the page whilst I was skim-reading the chapter, and they brought me up short and made me pause. It’s perhaps a strange thing to say – why should anger make one want to die? But I connected with the familiarity of the emotion straight away. Not just familiar to me, but familiar from the writings of other BPD bloggers as well. Only a few days before I had been reading a blog post by ‘Big Battles, Small Victories‘, where the author spoke of immense hurt and anger at being disappointed, and wrote “I want to not live”.

“I’m hurt and angry…..I want to not live”. “I am angry enough to die”.

Those words seem so connected. But they are separated in time, if not in emotion, by more than 2,400 years.

I read those words, from the last part of the Old Testament Book of Jonah, while I was sitting in church a few Sundays ago listening to a talk on the earlier part of the book. I confess, I was not paying as much attention as perhaps I should have been, and I also wanted to turn to the end and see what was in store.

For those with faith (of whatever persuasion), or those with none – I should say straight away, as I’ve noted in a recent post, that my own faith is ‘on the rocks’; this is not a sermon and this post is not about Jonah. You don’t need to know or believe anything about him, in order to, I hope, find something helpful in it. This post is about BPD and anger: the reference to Jonah provides only the context for a look at that subject, and it does so only because it was helpful to me personally, in starting off a chain of thought on this issue that touches the lives of so many with BPD. If the context seems irrelevant or makes you uncomfortable, I can only apologise – that is certainly not my intention. Equally, if you have sympathy with the context, but are uncomfortable with some of the interpretations towards the end of this post, I must also apologise. It is not my intention to be irreverent in any way. I am not ‘taking scripture lightly’ – perhaps I am, however, allowing myself to give in to the temptation that we sometimes have, to project our ‘difficulties’ outside ourselves, and to see them everywhere. In the lyrics of a song, behind the story of a film, in the pages of a book. And in the person of someone that we meet (or read about).

The first part of the DSM-IV Criterion 8 for BPD reads: “Inappropriate, intense anger, or difficulty controlling anger.”  Until a couple of years ago, I always thought of myself as someone who never got angry, and as with a number of the DSM-IV criteria, it took me a while to really understand how this one applied to me. And I have realised that the reason for that, is that I have been defining the criteria in very particular ways.

I defined abandonment purely in terms of physical abandonment, rather than emotional abandonment and being left to cope on my own with what I was feeling. I defined ‘black and white’ thinking purely in intellectual terms and the ability (or lack of) to appreciate all sides of an argument, and the grey areas in between. It took me a long time to realise that ‘black and white’ thinking is in some ways much more about ‘black and white’ feeling, and is fundamentally emotion-centred, rather than being about intellectual flexibility. And anger? I defined anger in terms of physical or verbal manifestations – being physically violent or verbally abusive. I didn’t do those things. I was never angry. How wrong I was.

I remember one instance of ‘feeling angry’ (as I originally defined it) when I was growing up. That instance stands out because it was unique. It was the time, when I was around seventeen, when I became convinced my mother had read my diary. Although my memory of the event is patchy, I think I shouted. I think I told her that I hated her.

You might argue that that is a relatively common thing for a teenager to tell her parents. But not for a teenager who grew up with a whole suite of things she was not supposed to say or feel. Some of those things brought disapproval or dismissiveness; others brought emotional suffocation. Feeling or expressing anger; needing or expressing a wish for privacy of thought and emotion; being depressed or admitting to depression – those were all among the former. Fear, sadness, pain, loss – those were all among the latter. They were emotions which, should I ever have admitted to them, would have led to similar emotions in my mother, which she would then have allowed to flood over me.

So I expressed neither the things that would have been disapproved of or dismissed, nor the things that would have been too difficult, emotionally, for others to bear. And so I always thought of myself as someone who was never angry, and passed, incredibly successfully, for someone who was never sad. And yet for years, I was both sad and angry, and didn’t realise quite how much. For years, my mind was filled with imaginary conversations and scenarios between me and the one or two people at those times in my life, who I jokingly thought of as those I ‘loved to hate’. People who I now understand that I had ‘split’ into ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’, and was at that time devaluing. Hateful and vengeful thoughts and words – how could I have been so oblivious to the fact that what lay behind them was anger, pure and simple?

Over the last few years I have been more conscious of the emotion of anger within me – particularly as it relates to how I feel about my parents – and the vehemence of it  sometimes takes me by surprise. Nevertheless, as I never gave it expression, I still thought of myself as someone who ‘did not get angry’. I have even been conscious of the inappropriate nature of it, set off sometimes by the smallest disappointment or hint of criticism or control – and yet I have still, somehow, managed to sideline it and failed to appreciate it as a part of myself.  Perhaps it is because I always have, and still do, find anger and confrontation very scary. I hate them. I feel battered by them. They feel like an assault on me and on my emotions. They drive me emotionally underground and behind a barricade. Perhaps it’s unsurprising then, that I find it difficult to acknowledge that anger may have a seat within me.

As well as being more conscious of the emotion of anger within me, I am also becoming more conscious of where it comes from, and how it affects my behaviour and my sense of self. And as with many an emotion within the BPD landscape, I have come to the conclusion that at least for me, anger too, is intimately connected with the issue of expectations. I talked about BPD and expectations in a recent post, in which I said that I agreed with blogger Cat Earnshaw (‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’), that ‘great expectations’ were at the core of BPD. They seem to me to form the hub from which hang the rusty and twisted spokes of abandonment, depression, disappointment, hurt, and anger, amongst others. What makes BPD anger ‘inappropriate’ is not just the degree of its intensity, but also the nature of the ‘expectations not met’ that underlie it, and the impact it has upon the sense of who we are.

And that is precisely what struck me about those two stories, more than 2,000 years apart, that I came across within the space of a few days. “I’m hurt and angry…..I want to not live”. “I am angry enough to die”. I may feel ‘battered’ by another’s anger – but my own anger assaults me too. Occasionally, it makes me want to die. But often it makes me want to hurt myself. Is it because I’m so ‘conditioned’ not to turn it outwards? Is it because I always saw anger as a ‘bad thing’ to feel? Does part of me feel that I have to punish myself for it?

I always thought that the reason I persisted, when I was a child, in winding up my mother when she was cross, to the point at which she became so angry that she smacked me, was because I saw it as a ‘victory’ to push her to a point where she acted in a way she did not like. That belief (though ‘retrospective’) has allowed me to retain the sense that I was in control of the situation, and that I was punishing her – (or was that her thought, rather than mine?) – but I’ve recently started to wonder if there was something else going on. Awareness of the self-destructiveness in me now, makes me wonder how long it might have been there for, and how much it might have been responsible for. If I was arguing with my mother, was I angry? And if I was angry, was I, even if I did not realise it at the time, so angry that I needed it to hurt?

I think that Jonah needed it to hurt. Jonah was angry because God hadn’t acted in the way that he had expected him to act. It seems to me that Jonah’s expectations were at the root both of his anger, and of his original decision to run away from God. He knew that God would disappoint his (one might say ‘unreasonable’) expectations – and he would rather run than face that disappointment and despair. When he was faced with it, he wanted to die. He went out into the desert in what feels like an incredibly familiar attempt to both test the one who had disappointed him, and to inflict further pain on himself. It’s clear that the scorching desert sun was wearing him down, but it was the blazing heat of his anger that continued to consume him.

We’re not told how the story ends. And, much though I would like to, I’m afraid I don’t have ‘an ending’ either. I wish I had some wise words to say about anger, some advice to give, some ways of dealing with it or working through it. When it comes to trying to understand anger, I’m right at the beginning of my own story. It’s a story in which I hope that, contrary to usual belief, anger will be redemptive (and I don’t mean that in a religious sense). I hope that by acknowledging and accepting my anger, and even (though I shudder to think about it) by giving it some sort of appropriate expression, I can build a healthier relationship both with myself and with those closest to me.

Being able to say ‘I feel angry’ would be a good start. Maybe I will try it on my therapist – goodness knows it’s often very apt. But that’s the subject of another story…..


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TAT, anyone?

TAT 2

A few months ago when reading ‘I Hate You – Don’t Leave Me’, by Kreisman and Straus, I came across mention of the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT), which is a ‘projective psychological test’ aimed at revealing underlying motives, concerns, thought patterns and the lens through which an individual sees the world. The test involves eliciting associations to stimuli which are ambiguous (for example, a picture or an inkblot) and creating a story around them. According to Kreisman and Straus, the responses from borderline patients often describe more ‘bizarre’ or more ‘primitive’ images than the responses of certain other groups of  ‘patients’. The image included here, is an example of the type of ambiguous picture used in the TAT.

I chanced upon this at around the same time I first discussed a dream within a therapy session. More recently, I have been reading about psychodynamic psychotherapy (the type of therapy I am undertaking), in which the stories we tell, as well as the dreams we describe and the metaphors and symbolism that we employ, can all be used to access our unconscious minds.

Fascinated by the concept, I decided it might be fun (and hopefully informative!) to try an online version of the test, involving a single image, even though I believe that strictly speaking, ‘proper’ use of the TAT involves analysing responses to a number of different stimuli. I found such a test here, on the website of the University of Texas, which involves looking at a picture for a couple of minutes and writing whatever story comes to mind. Part of the test is that one should write continuously for a period (10 minutes in this particular test),  in order to minimize the impact of  ‘conscious thought’ on whatever story the unconscious mind might be trying to tell.

I should emphasize that this is not a fully rigorous use of the TAT, and I should also mention that reliability and validity of the TAT are both debated in academic circles. However, in as much as a response to a picture counts as a ‘story that we tell’, I think this is an interesting exercise from a psychodynamic perspective, and in some countries, it is widely used as part of a psychodynamic approach. Just as in dream interpretation, I am sure that there many different ways to construe stories written in this manner, and many different interpretations are possible, none of which are ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. I found it both an interesting and a useful exercise, which, much like a dream, took elements of my conscious experience, and fashioned it into something that revealed underlying thoughts and beliefs not previously tapped into. The online test itself ‘scores’ responses and gives an average score, compared to ‘typical’ male and female responses, in areas such as ‘positive emotions’, ‘negatives emotions’, ‘need for power’ etc. Personally, I found these scores less informative or useful than thinking about what my story might be telling me, that my conscious mind was concealing from me.

I would like to post the story that I wrote as part of that online test, but on the off-chance that a curious reader might also be interested in ‘taking the test’ and possibly even in sharing their story, I will do so in a separate post next week. If you do take the test and blog post your story, please do let me know – I would be interested in reading, and in seeing a different tale emerging from the same ambiguous image! In the meantime, enjoy your TAT – I can guarantee it’s more fun, more interesting and more informative than the plethora of Facebook quizzes out there (we’ve all taken them, haven’t we?!) that claim to assess your personality on the basis of your favourite food, or seek to match you to a ‘Frozen’ character…..

 

 

 


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Faith

god parent final I find it difficult writing a post about religion. I think it’s at least partly because religion was such a controversial topic between my mother and me that it’s always been a discussion best avoided, other than when tackled in a purely philosophical, non-personal and non-emotive sense.

However, I have come across a number of mental health bloggers with a strong faith, which I have both envied and admired. And which, I have to say, made me very conscious of the fact that it’s a subject that has so far never figured in my posts. Which is itself indicative of the fact that it’s a subject that has figured very little in my life over the last few years. But it’s time I tackled it, at least in overview, both in the spirit of my commitment to self-disclosure and being open about all aspects of my BPD; and also in the hope that others might identify with these feelings, and that what I say might be helpful, at least to some. I hope it is of general interest – for those with a belief in God, for those without, and for those who are not sure. I think that BPD can make having faith in anything very hard – and as such, I hope that this post speaks to all those who struggle to keep faith with anyone or anything that used to be important to them.

I have always had a faith – apart from when I almost lost it during my final year of school. In that year, I went to bed every night not caring whether I lived or died, but counter-intuitively, I seemed to care very much, whether my faith lived or died. That faith has had different types of ‘flavours’, at least partly dependent on who I was with, or the major influences in my life at the time – but it has always been there. However, I have noticed that time and time again, my worst times as regards my BPD and my depression, have coincided with crises of faith of one kind or another. At the times when conceivably, I needed it the most, it has either abandoned me, or I it. It has either left me in agonising doubt, or I have left it on the scrapheap.

I think it’s true to say, that for the last few years, I have been ‘keeping God on the back burner’. I’m a little worried that He might not like to be put in that position, but I’m hoping that, under the circumstances, He might make allowances. The unfortunate reality of mental illness is that it can be so all-consuming, that it leaves little room for anything else. For me, self-absorption increases, my attention turns inward, and more and more of my life starts to be lived in my head. Relationships suffer – including spiritual ones. It’s not that I no longer believe – it’s that belief, in anything, simply does not feel relevant.

Like my husband, God has also suffered from me putting him, inadvertently, in the ‘parent box’. ‘The parent box’ is a very bad place for anybody to be. If you are in the ‘parent box’, it means that I transfer all of the negative feelings I have towards my parents, onto you. It means that things that you do that remind me of things that they do, or did, trigger disproportionate and excessive reactions. If you are in the ‘parent box’, you will not be allowed within a light-year of my emotions, and my communication with you will be at best monosyllabic. My communication with God is not even monosyllabic – I haven’t been able to pray in almost two years. In a way of thinking that is typical of my own BPD, I feel as though I have to give God everything or nothing. I don’t feel that I can pray while there are areas of my life I’m not yet prepared to be challenged on – self-harm, for example.

It’s unfortunate that my BPD is currently aligning the image of God as a ‘parent figure’ with my own experience of parental figures, rather than holding Him up as the ‘perfect parent’. Perhaps this is partly because I find it hard to relate to the concept of a ‘perfect parent’ – unlike my husband and a number of friends that I have spoken to about this, I don’t remember a time when I thought my parents were perfect. In particular, I am extremely sensitive to issues of control, and to the threat of engulfment. My two most recent therapists have called my mother ‘intrusive’ – she believed that nothing should be private between parent and child and has always failed to understand how we could ever be anything other than ‘of like mind’ with each other. It’s partly that same fear of being controlled and of being taken over, that is holding me back at the moment from trying to re-engage with my faith.

But there are other reasons for my being wary of ‘throwing myself back into religion’. I am aware that pursuing my faith more actively, will in all likelihood help me. It has done so before, and every temporary ‘recovery’ has been associated with a period of revitalised connection with God, with some periods lasting longer than others. But none of those has prevented a re-occurrence of old problems, or a relapse and flaring up of BPD symptoms again. I’m not blaming religion for this and I’m not saying that I adhere to the idea that religion is some sort of panacea. But for me, I think it has acted as part of a reinvention of self and a taking on of a new identity. That process, and that ‘escape route’, has in the past placed a temporary sticking plaster over a very deep seated and enduring problem. And that is precisely what I would like, this time, to avoid.

That is precisely why I am putting myself through the very painful process of therapy, at a time in my life when I feel that it is costly. When I feel as though I should be spending more mental energy on my children while they are still young, rather than expending so much of it in the therapy chair and being absorbed both in the process of therapy, and in my relationships with my therapists. However, part of me suspects that it is vital to do it now, because the next big life-change or emotional challenge, particularly if it concerns my parents as they get older, could be the one that precipitates an even more significant crisis for me, and therefore for my children too.

When all of this is over (or at least, when my life is more under control), I would very much like to come back to God – if He will have me. But I would like to come back because I have found myself, and not because I want to lose myself again. And if he’s guiding me behind the scenes; if I’m being held by an invisible thread, then I’m very grateful, really I am. Getting Him out of the ‘parent box’ might feel nigh-on impossible sometimes – but luckily He’s known for the odd miracle or two.


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Are you receiving me – BPD, communication and expectations

I may write blog posts and enjoy giving presentations, but in many ways, I have a BIG problem with communication. I think the difficulty is two-fold: on the one hand it stems from the desperate desire to be understood (which I described in a previous post) and the fear that communication will not result in the understanding or acceptance that I crave.

On the other hand, my difficulty with communication also stems from something which, just like fellow blogger and friend Cat Earnshaw from ‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’, I believe is at the core of BPD. And that is the issue of EXPECTATIONS. ‘Expectations’ writ large – the way they are inside the minds of so many with this diagnosis. We withdraw and stop communicating when we feel betrayed and disappointed because our expectations are not met; and sometimes we don’t realise we need to communicate how we think or feel, because our expectation is that the other person does, or should, already know.

Cat Earnshaw titled her post on expectations, “If you’re going to read one post I write, please let it be this one”. If you’re going to read one post on expectations, please let it be that one. (Although I admit I’d also appreciate you coming back to this post!). It’s one of those wonderful pieces of writing that, at least for me, describes a phenomenon exactly as I experience it.

So what is it, exactly, that we expect? In some cases, it is nothing short of perfection: someone who is perfect for us; a perfect relationship; perfect patience; perfect words; perfect understanding; perfect care. Someone who will always be there, who will put our needs first, and who will never let us down. I would suggest that few of these are conscious expectations – our logical brains know that perfection is unattainable and human beings are fallible. But our hearts, and our emotion-minds, and those very young parts of us that have not yet been able to grow up, think and feel very differently. They still believe that perfect care is possible – they still need it to be true.

That need gives rise, I think, to an incredibly heightened sensitivity and reactivity to others’ words and actions, to the extent that everything someone says, does, doesn’t say or doesn’t do, can become evidence of that person’s lack of caring. Much though I hate it, I know that when I’m in that frame of mind and being triggered by my expectations, regardless of what may be going on in someone’s life that influences the way they relate to me, in my mind it all becomes about how they feel about me. This leads to me being much more likely to become wary or suspicious of them; to misinterpret or read things into what they say; to feel wronged by them; to feel jealousy towards them, particularly with respect to their attention and time; and to want to test them, or more accurately, to test their caring for me. My instinctive reaction to these feelings is often to want to blame others and to ‘punish’ them for the crushing disappointment and rejection that I feel. And the greatest punishment I can inflict is the one I fear the most myself – distancing, pushing away, and withdrawing communication.

But for me, the greatest threat to communication is not withdrawing it, but assuming it. Undoubtedly one of the largest and most crippling expectations that I have, is what my ex-therapist called the expectation of ‘magical thinking’. That is, the assumption that others could (and should) be able to know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to tell them. ‘Half of a Soul – Life with BPD’ referred to this as someone being able to telepathically intuit my every need, for ever. The expectation of magical thinking plays havoc with communication and with relationships and its poison lies not just in its assumption of another’s knowing how I think or feel, but in the importance and meaning that is attached to that assumption.

Put simply, part of me holds this unshakable belief. That if someone really understands me and cares about me, they should know what I need without me having to ask, and they should know what I’m thinking and how I’m feeling, without me having to put it into words. And consequently, if they don’t know, they don’t really care or understand. Moreover, part of that unshakable belief is that if I have to ask for those things (for example, if I have to ask for reassurance, or ask for a hug), it diminishes their value, in two ways. Those things can no longer serve as ‘evidence’ of caring and understanding; and I can no longer be sure that they are ‘freely given’. Part of me feels that if I have to ask for something, emotionally, then it is not my due, and I do not deserve or merit it. If I have to ask for something, emotionally, I feel that the giving is in response to my coercion, and not to a genuine feeling within the other person.

It’s a fallacy. I know that it is. But it feels so incredibly logical. It feels so incredibly true.

And as with any other of these seemingly logical expectations, when they are not met, the accompanying feelings are a whirlwind of rejection, blame and hurt. I spoke about blaming and punishing others, but we also blame and punish ourselves. Just tonight, I read a post on ‘Big battles, small victories’, which I think was also, at root, about expectations (apologies to the author, if this is not the case!), and which contained the line “I want to hurt myself again”. Every time I feel crushed because my expectations are not met, I want to hurt myself again.

I suspect that for almost everyone reading this who has BPD, the phenomenon of ‘great expectations’ is a familiar one. But it’s also worth saying that it’s possible to carry on with life and with relating to people for years, without realising the powerful force that lies within, waiting to be triggered. ‘So Illuminate Me’ said, in one of her posts, “My BPD often comes out more, when I genuinely care for someone”. And so it is with BPD and the expectations we have of people. Our exceptionally high expectations, and the thoughts, feelings and behaviours that flow from those, seem to manifest mostly in relation to those we feel closest to. In my own case, they manifest in relation to those to whom I have made myself vulnerable, and those to whom I have made myself more fully known. And because I spent the majority of my life being determined never to be fully known, it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve experienced the painful phenomenon of BPD expectations on a much more regular basis.

Although I’ve made progress over the last couple of years in terms of revealing more of myself to a very small number of friends, I’m still very wary of widening that ‘inner circle’. Part of me doesn’t want to add yet another person to the list of those who trigger me in this way. I’ve tried to understand how it happens – how someone can go from being outside that circle one minute, to crossing the line into the centre of it, in an instant. I think it’s a complicated picture involving a number of factors: it’s about me sharing a great deal of myself, and my feelings and thoughts; it’s about the other person having either explicitly or implicitly given some sort of commitment to ‘be there’ for me; it’s about trust; and it’s about me testing that trust and commitment by revealing ever more ‘difficult’ things. Sometimes the very process of ‘unburdening’ myself to someone can lead to an immediate and invisible bond being forged between us, which may be very real to me, but which the other person may be completely oblivious to.

Given the fact that my expectations tend to be triggered by the factors described above, it’s unsurprising that I experience these feelings with respect to my therapists (both past and present). This is particularly true of me at the moment, and as it is such a recurring theme in my therapy, I intend to write about it separately.

In the meantime, however, I wanted to leave you with a quote from an excellent post I came across on ‘Tracing the rainbow through the rain’. Although it is mainly about BPD and ‘competence’, it describes how I experience the problem of expectations so exactly, and so completely, that I wanted to quote the relevant paragraph in full. In particular, it talks about the expectation of magical thinking, and about how it applies in the context of medical professionals and service users. I hope you came back from Cat Earnshaw’s post to this one, if only to read this paragraph:

“Paradoxically, whilst constructing a mask of competence and coping with excessive levels of stress and responsibility, I would vilify those closest to me along with medical professionals for not seeing my real needs. Effectively, I would blame everyone around me for not being mind readers. This is one of the greatest challenges to professionals trying to help those with BPD who display apparent competence. I will not openly tell you about my emotional distress, but I will hold you accountable for not seeing ‘through’ my mask of competence and I will make you ‘suffer’ as a consequence. My outward co-operation as a service user was tempered by a harsh assessment of those seeking to help me, particularly if I felt they couldn’t see through my outward competence. If anyone failed to ask the ‘right’ question, or misread my mood on any given day, then progress for that day would be painful if not halted.”

The tragedy of expectations is how self-defeating they are: we are so desperate for someone to truly ‘see’ us, that we pull down the blinds simply because they fail to ‘see through us’. We make ourselves invisible, by not accepting the inherent invisibility of our minds.

Somewhere deep down, we are still the infant who believes that she and mother are one being; we are still the toddler who believes that everyone else knows and sees what she does. These are the growing pains of BPD. 

 

 

[If you read the comments on Half of a Soul’s post ‘If you’re going to read one post I write, please let it be this one’, you may notice a strong similarity between my post above, and the comments of ‘Still Hiding’. That is because ‘Still Hiding’ was the ‘name’ I used before I started blogging and before I created ‘Life in a Bind’!]