I hate going back into the world after a therapy session. All I want is to remain suspended in that sense of comfort and connection. All I want is that relatedness, that safety, that mutuality. I want to stay in that therapy bubble so very badly, that leaving it is heartbreaking.
I feel guilty; selfish and self-indulgent. I feel as though by wishing myself so strongly back into that therapy room, with my therapist, I am rejecting not just the good things in my life, but the people in my life. I have a husband, children, a good job, relative material comfort. There is so much that I could hope for, wish for, and live for – how can that ‘bubble’ be the most attractive thing in the world to me? How can that be the thing I feel I want more than anything else? As a mother, with her children’s lives ahead of her, how can that possibly be true? And if it is, what does that say about me?
There is only one way that I can rationalise it to myself, that releases me from some of that guilt and feeling of self-centredness. And that is to try and argue that perhaps these are not adult dreams, or adult desires. That perhaps it’s not the adult who wants to be in the therapy cocoon forever; that the adult is not rejecting her own children. Those are the child’s desires, and she would be happy if the entire world disappeared as long as she was safe and held in that ‘unconditional positive regard’ that is the bedrock of the therapy relationship.
I’ve been aware for some time, of the fact that I feel different ages at different times, and with different people. I cannot help but feel around twelve years old whenever I am in the presence of our vicar’s wife, and it takes a constant effort to remind myself that she sees me as an adult, and not as the child that I feel when I’m around her. She feels motherly – not in some stereotypical way, but simply in the sense that she is the kind of mother I would have wanted to have.
But nowhere am I more aware of the adult and the child parts of me, than in therapy. In her excellent post ‘Mind Blown’, Half of a Soul commented that her therapist had asked her what age she felt when she was distressed, and that she had realised that it was the age at which she had started to suppress emotion, rather than allowing herself to experience it. I too, tend to feel much more child-like when distressed, and the age that I associate with those feelings, has been getting younger. Therapists have a difficult task in that they have to identify ‘who’ (adult or child) is engaging with them at each point in the session, and they have to decide how best to respond in a way that meets the needs of the one, without invalidating the other.
The idea of ‘regressing’ during therapy while re-experiencing events or feelings of childhood, is a common one, but the difficulty with BPD is that it’s not just a case of going back to childhood, but a case of being stuck there. There are a number of factors that contribute to the development of BPD, but some have argued that BPD is at least partly due to early ‘developmental arrest’. Individuals continue to grow physically and intellectually, but their emotional and psychological development is impaired, and key developmental stages are interrupted and never properly negotiated. Comparisons between some BPD behaviours and characteristics and those of toddlers, is common. These behaviours and characteristics include: splitting (black and white thinking); projection (of disturbing emotions onto others instead); difficulties with object constancy; lack of boundaries or a distinct sense of self. Given these theories of developmental arrest, it is easy to see why such comparisons are made – to a greater or lesser extent, those with BPD have never really outgrown those early defence mechanisms and ways of seeing the world.
Toddlers want to be ‘grown up’ but their desire is for a superficial adulthood and a responsibility that provides temporary excitement and a sense of control, but has no real consequences. Their real desire and satisfaction is in the land of fantasy and play, and being burdened with inappropriate levels of adult responsibility too soon, leads only to insecurity, anger, distrust and emotional pain. That is why being an adult can weigh so heavily on someone with BPD. There are so many ways in which our ability to relate to and to deal with the world, is compromised. What should be ‘normal’ adult interactions can be laden with confusion and pain because the adult response feels ‘wrong’ even though intellectually one may appreciate that it is ‘the right thing to do’.
I recently asked the advice of a school friend of mine, on how to deal with a situation in which I was feeling triggered by the lack of contact from another friend. The adult, non-BPD response would be to just go ahead and make contact. I recognise that that is the right thing to do, but it is a giant struggle against my BPD to actually try and do that. My inner toddler is sulking, but not only that – she has big insecurities and a great need for reassurance. I don’t want to contact my friend first – if I do, how will I ever know whether she would have contacted me at some point? How will I ever know whether she would have thought of me – whether she cares? My school friend replied that those are the risks of adult life – but part of me hates adult life, and has difficulty in engaging with it.
The weight of ‘being an adult’ falls heavily back onto me when I leave the therapy room. Even if the interaction with my therapist on a particular day was more ‘adult-like’ than child-like, going back into the world feels like a burden. Can I really ‘blame’ that intense desire to stay, purely on the child within, and divorce it from all other parts of myself? It’s one thing for the desires of the child to be uppermost; my concern is that I cannot find the adult. Where is she, and what are her desires? If I want to ascribe to the child the desire to ‘live in fantasy and play’, I have to be able to separate it out from the desire of the adult, and be able to show that it is different. But I’m not sure that I can. Perhaps it is because the adult is here in body, but in a very real sense, she has not fully come to be.
And so I am left, every time I leave, with the sense that I want to stay forever, and with the guilt that I should be wanting something else. I’m left with ‘separation anxiety’ and crumbling memories of that precious hour, until they can be recaptured again when I am back in that room. Leaving the therapy bubble is heartbreaking – but I have to keep on doing it, time and time again. Perhaps when the separation becomes a bit more bearable, I’ll know that there is a bit less growing up to do.