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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Transported troubles – BPD and parenting, Part 3

BPD parenting hopeAs a parent, you’re always conscious, I think, of trying not to live life through your children. The implication of such ‘living vicariously’ is that you are trying to live the life you never had. What I never realised was that having children would mean living life through them – not the life I never had, but the life that I did have. That I would be transported back to my own childhood.

I remember a couple of years ago, crying at a friend’s house during a play date in which a small ‘gang’ of girls had told my son they didn’t like boys and didn’t want to play with him. He seemed (at least outwardly) fairly unaffected by the whole thing and went off to play by himself, so it wasn’t any outward emotion or evidence of unhappiness, that had disturbed me.

It’s a common human experience to feel sad when those we love feel sad; or to feel happy when they feel happy. It is the essence of what it means to have empathy. I don’t know – I have no conceivable way of knowing – whether what I experienced that day, or in many subsequent days, was simply empathy, but perhaps ratcheted up a notch to reflect the fact that those with BPD often experience feelings more intensely. All I can say is – it felt as though it was happening to me.

A similar situation arose a few months ago, when my son was pushing around a friend of his at school, who had started to say that he didn’t want to play with him anymore. Very quickly, I spiralled down into suicidal thinking. My therapist thought that I blamed myself and felt the situation as a criticism of my parenting. While that may be true, I don’t think that rejection of my parenting was the major contributory factor to how I was feeling – that would imply that I was facing the situation as an adult and a parent. The biggest factor was a much more all-encompassing sense of rejection of self.

Was I being self-centred, making the situation ‘all about me’? All I can say is, it didn’t feel as though it was about me – it felt as though it was happening to me. Of course I hurt because my child hurt and not just because I did; and part of my despair was over the thought that he might, one day, end up feeling as unable to cope with the world, as I did. But at the same time, that sense of rejection went right to my core and left me feeling worthless, and the sphere of rejection grew outwards until it felt as though everyone was party to that rejection in one form or another.

I was living parts of my own childhood through my son, but with a twist – reliving the life I had had, but with the thoughts and emotions I never did. At least, not on a conscious level.

Just as therapy is helping me to discover how I really think about myself, being a parent is inadvertently opening a door on feelings I may have had about myself when growing up, but locked away because they were too difficult (or risky) to handle. I can’t really remember how I felt about the verbal and emotional bullying at school – how I dealt with it on a day to day basis. I had some wonderful friends, my academic pursuits defined me and I needed the structure that a school day provided. Those things undoubtedly resulted in my enduring memory that I ‘loved school’. But they pass over a whole part of my school experience that I have until now ignored, but that having children has brought not only back to memory, but back to lived experience. And not only back to lived experience, but back to un-experienced thoughts, fears and emotions.

The terrifying thought is that this journey of re-living and of discovery, has only just begun. At some point my children will experience the death of a loved one; complete rejection by a friend; disappointment or failure of some kind; a broken heart. I know it may sound self-centred to worry about re-experiencing those things, and of course I wish that they never had to experience them at all. But I know they will, as we all do. I just wish that the person they had by their side to help them through, was someone whose experience had left a legacy of wisdom, and not a legacy of fear. That the person they had by their side would be someone who already knew how it felt to be them – not someone who was discovering their feelings for the first time. That the person they had to stand by them would be someone who could stand in their shoes and yet stand firm – not someone who would tremble.

I’m sure that there are common threads here, for any parent. Our children will always remind us of our childhoods, the good times and the bad. They will always ‘take us back’ – but if you’re a parent with BPD, or someone with BPD who is thinking of becoming a parent, I think it’s important to be aware of what that ‘taking back’ involves, and of what might surface in the process. Somehow I feel naïve for not realising earlier, that my children’s emotions would transport me back in time, but with the insight and self-awareness of an adult.

I hate to give advice, because I am the furthest thing from wise, and because everyone is unique – but I believe that anyone considering starting a family, whether or not they have mental health difficulties, should think about the implications. Everyone’s life changes in at least some ways when they have a child, and thinking through what those changes might be, and what they might mean for you, can only be a good thing. Nothing can prepare you for having a child, but the more ‘surprises’ you can try and pre-empt, the better – there will always be more to come!

Many people think long and hard about when might be the ‘right time’ to start a family. In some ways, I think there is never a right time – there is no ‘perfect age’ at which to have children, or the ‘perfect stage’ in one’s career. But as a general point, I would encourage anyone with BPD who is thinking about starting a family, to think about it in the context of their recovery. I wish I had known about my diagnosis before I had had children, and had been aware of how it would affect me and my parenting. I wish I had sought help and had had therapy years ago, so that I could have been further along in my recovery and possibly been better equipped to deal with the challenges I face now. Life changes and stress points exacerbate BPD symptoms, and there are few more significant life changes than the birth of a child.

Wherever you are in your recovery, you will probably still be triggered, to a greater or lesser extent, by the things that toddlers do; you will probably still react, to a greater or lesser extent, in the way that toddlers do; and you will probably still be transported, to a great or lesser extent, back to the most difficult parts of your own childhood. However, being further along in your recovery may give you a few more tools at your disposal, both cognitive and emotional, for dealing with all those troubles.

I have tried to end each of my posts on ‘BPD and parenting’ on an uplifting note, because above all, I want to show that it is possible to have a mental illness and to parent – not perfectly, not even always consistently or according to our intentions, but thoughtfully and responsibly, and with validation, acceptance and great love. I want to end this little ‘series’ by thanking my children for teaching me. They challenge me and fascinate me; they confuse me and inspire me. And yes, okay, sometimes they irritate me (but never was a truer word said than “Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves”*)! By being themselves and giving me a little window onto their souls, they are also helping me to open up a few more windows (and doors) into myself, and that, ultimately, can only be a good thing for us all.

 

* quote by Carl Jung


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Laughter in therapy

laughter in therapy

Therapy is not a matter of milestones, but of moments*. Those moments can be: awkward; intense; heart-warming; painful; shocking; surprising; happy; exhausting; revelatory; uncomfortable; thought-provoking; mundane; interesting; angry; fearful; beautiful.

But there is nothing so lovely in therapy, I think, as moments of laughter. Particularly where that laughter is at an ‘in-joke’- amusing to the two of you by virtue of the intimate work you share in.

I told my therapist that I had asked one of my children how he felt about a particular situation. He told me, and then said “was that the right answer?”. I replied that there was no right or wrong answer.

As I related this story, I caught my therapist’s eye and we both burst out laughing, a split second apart. The irony hit me, as it hit her, and there was no need for either of us to explain what we found so amusing. My answer to my son was precisely the answer my therapist gives to me every time I worry that I am ‘not doing therapy right’. It was amusing for both of us to see me play her role, and pass on a wisdom I found it so difficult to apply to myself.

There are so many intense, moving, and powerful moments in therapy, where we make ourselves vulnerable and feel ourselves drawn closer to our therapist. But shared laughter has a special kind of bonding quality. For that moment, you are precisely attuned; on the same wavelength. Your laughing together is only possible because of a shared emotional and intellectual state. So much of therapy is ‘unequal’, in the sense that you reveal a great deal of yourself, whereas the therapist reveals comparatively little. But shared laughter has a unique kind of mutuality.

There is an added benefit to laughing with my therapist. I spend so much of my sessions avoiding eye contact – but when I laugh with her, I look at her. And that too, is another form of bonding and connection. That too, shortens the distance between us. Therapy is a matter of moments  – and laughing together are amongst the moments that matter the most. 

 

* This is a twist on a quote by Rose Kennedy: “Life is not a matter of milestones, but of moments”.

 


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Toddler troubles – BPD and parenting, Part 2

toddler tantrumOne of the hardest things about being a parent with BPD, is dealing with the toddler. Not just the cute three-foot high one wreaking havoc in your house, but the inner toddler who appears to be so often in control of the adult body he or she inhabits. In ‘Trigger troubles – BPD and parenting, Part 1’, I wrote about the fact that some of the very things that make children, children, are also the things that due to the nature of BPD, I find most triggering. This difficulty is then compounded by the ways in which I react to triggering situations, and the internal resources (or lack thereof) that I have for dealing with them.

Whenever I’ve been on ‘Assertiveness’ courses, it’s always been emphasized that it only needs one party in a two-person interaction to behave assertively, and the chances of a constructive and positive outcome are high. What is needed in the presence of a child temper tantrum, other outburst of emotion, or a struggle for control, is the influence and perspective of an adult who can both contain the situation (emotionally) and has the skills and experience to diffuse it. And yet I struggle, so often, to be an adult in these situations, and they end up escalating as a toddler-to-toddler interaction might, without appropriate intervention.

In ‘Separation anxiety – BPD and emotional development’, I spoke about the theory that BPD is at least partly due to ‘developmental arrest’, where key developmental stages are interrupted and never properly negotiated. Toddler characteristics, defence mechanisms and ways of seeing the world – such as splitting, projection, lack of object constancy and lack of boundaries – may then carry on into adulthood and can manifest as some of the symptoms of BPD. Comparisons between some ‘BPD behaviours’ and those of toddlers are therefore not uncommon, and I know that my husband often feels as though he is having to manage a house full of toddlers, of which I am one.

I’m ashamed to admit that I have cuddled my youngest for comfort, much as a child might hold a soft toy, while my eldest has been in another room with my husband, crying and screaming over one of those seemingly small (to an adult) issues that can become the be-all and end-all of a child’s focus. Far from being able to contain my child’s overwhelming emotions, I find it hard to be in the same room with them. Perhaps because I don’t have much of a sense of my own boundaries, other people’s strong emotions always feel as though they are going to railroad me and ‘get inside me’, and so being around them feels like being under attack. My own distress at these times, is locked away – the only thing I can deal with is trying to defend myself against the ‘external’ distress.

I feel very guilty at the false messages that that may send to my children – that I need ‘protecting’ by the one, and ‘protecting from’ the other, neither of which is true. I also feel guilty at the fact that it’s not just their intense emotions that I find difficult to handle, but their intense clinginess as well. There are times when I am the one who clings to them – but sometimes, when they do the same to me, their neediness triggers something in me, and I almost have to push them away. That, at least, I understand and hope I can explain to them one day, if they remember it. I want to reassure them that I love them, that it has nothing at all to do with them, and it’s not their fault. What I’m reacting to is my mother’s neediness, and when I lift them off me as they’re trying to cling, it’s her I’m trying to keep at arms’ length, and not them.

As well as difficulty handling strong emotions, another key toddler characteristic is low frustration tolerance. Whether it’s losing control over the fact that you have cut their toast into triangles and not squares, or having a tantrum because the blue socks are in the wash and the red ones will never do, any kind of change or deviation from a plan or from the way ‘things are supposed to be’, can be very hard for a small child to deal with. Luckily, most of us do not remember quite what that feels like, and often, as adults, we struggle to suppress a smile and to take our children seriously when the number of peas on their plate (even if they can’t count) seems to be sufficient cause for a massive meltdown.

However, I suspect that if you have BPD, trying to remember what that feels like is not as difficult as it might seem. You have probably felt it repeatedly, even as an adult, and particularly if you are a parent. I frequently feel that my frustration tolerance is at zero (and sometimes in the negative numbers!). It may not be over the shape of my toast or the colour of my socks, but the feelings I experience at those times make me think about my children, and make me wonder if they feel exactly the same way.

For me, having low frustration tolerance means both that I experience frustration more easily, but also that the frustration experienced, feels magnified and very difficult to tolerate. I feel simultaneously completely squeezed and knotted up inside, but also as if I need to explode out of my body through the sheer force and volume of emotion. I feel like screaming with frustration – and I suppose that if I were a toddler, I would do just that. I am able to physically contain the frustration, but the feelings remain, most often coming out either as raising my voice (okay, shouting), or, if alone, crying. It is difficult to explain just how intense, maddening and hard to ‘sit with’, immense frustration can be. I’m not surprised children ‘lose it’ if they feel that way.

I find that I experience low frustration tolerance much more as a parent, than I ever did before. Any situation in which I don’t feel in control, or don’t feel listened to, or where things are not going as planned, or ‘not going my way’, can leave me with that knotted and explosive feeling inside. I have the sense of being on a knife-edge, with no internal resources to deal with being triggered and falling off that edge.

When I have low frustration tolerance I am also much less likely to be able to control my inner toddler, and power struggles are common. If my child moves his chair a centimetre to the left after I told him not to move his chair, I have to move it a centimetre to the right. Sometimes I catch myself insisting on compliance with something I have asked, even though I begin to realise it’s not that important and I probably didn’t need to ask for it to be done in the first place. I know that as a parent, I need to choose my battles, but sometimes it’s almost as if I’m choosing a battle for the sake of it, and for the sake of trying to regain a sense of control.

Do I know that I’m behaving like a child, in those situations? Often, yes. Do I hate it? Yes, always. Can I stop it – or rather, do I feel as though I can stop it, in that moment? Usually, no. Can I change it  – which is a different question – I have to hope so. I do hope so. With therapy, with hard work, and even more self-awareness, I hope that I will manage it, at least more of the time. I owe it to my children because I believe that love is fundamental but that it doesn’t ‘cover a multitude of sins’. We can all, only ever, do our best in a situation, including when it comes to parenting. But the goal post changes, and so does ‘our best’, the more self-aware we are, and the better we understand a situation and our response to it. We can use our insight into BPD and the toddler parts of ourselves, to gain greater insight into and empathy with our children. And we can also use it to try and ‘tame our toddlers’ – starting with the one inside.

And let’s not forget one other helpful aspect of BPD when it comes to parenting. Childlike-ness may be a draw-back when it comes to discipline, but when it comes to playing and laughing and having fun with your children, it can be a real joy, both for you and for them. Uninhibited joining in and relating to your children ‘at their level’ can be a very bonding experience, and brings new meaning to the phrase ‘being young at heart’! Make the most of it – while your children still find it acceptable for you to act as ‘silly’ as they do. The memory of such joyful experiences is very powerful, as is their ability to repair the day’s raised voices, and its tears and tantrums – on both sides.


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How do we come to know things?

experienceI am suffering post-therapy confusion. Rather like being sure that you have forgotten something, but are not quite sure what it is, I feel as though I am missing something fundamental about human interaction, but I can’t quite put my finger on what it is.

My therapist believes that I should come to know certain things through experience, rather than through words. “Do you care about me?” “Are you interested in the ‘grown-up me’ as well as the ‘child me’?” “Is it okay that I have these feelings for you?” “Do I annoy you sometimes?” 

So many questions on my part- so much verbal reassurance needed from my therapist, but not always given. When I raise the question – “why is reassurance not given?” – the answer is always that I will come to know the answers for myself, by experiencing them.

But I don’t understand why this should be the case. I don’t understand why it is so important that I learn the lesson of coming to know something through experience. Words are so important to me – I feel I need to hear something, in order for it to be unambiguous, and in order for me to remember it. For me, actions and events are open to interpretation, and the memories of them easily lose coherence and details fade. In contrast, I store up words in my mind, and play them over and over again to reinforce a message or a belief – to remind myself that something is true (or, at least as true as the words themselves). Once committed to memory, the words are always there, always powerful, always reassuring.

Is it really the case that ‘knowing through words’ is but a pale reflection of ‘knowing through experience’? What about that deep sense within me, that firmly believes, “how can I tell what someone thinks, until I see what they say?“.

Before I can learn the lesson of ‘knowledge through experience’, do I have to understand why the lesson is important? And is that something that I can be told, or just one more thing that I must come to know through experience?


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Five Things You Wanted to Know About Your Therapist but were Afraid to Ask: The Answers

A couple of weeks ago I reblogged a post by ‘Spacefreedomlove‘ called ‘Five things you always want to ask your therapist but are afraid to ask‘. This post, by Dr Gerald Stein, gives a therapist’s perspective on those questions and some answers. As Dr Stein notes, therapists are trained not to reveal too much of themselves – this is true of my own therapist, as it is of so many others. I therefore often find therapists’ blogs useful, as they give me more of a sense of what my own therapist might be thinking or feeling, or the approaches she might be using. Dr Stein has the advantage of being able to ‘reveal’ a little more of himself as he is retired from practice, and his blog is full of a vast array of interesting, thought provoking and humorous material!

Dr. Gerald Stein

psihoterapie-validTherapists sometimes reveal themselves despite their training not to. For example, in psychoanalytic treatment, Freud made himself a blank slate. He thought the patient’s troubles would become evident if he didn’t intrude upon the process. Remember, Freud sat behind the patient lying on the couch. Sigmund’s facial expressions and body language could not be observed. He said little, instead encouraging the analysand’s free association of thoughts. Then, if the client displayed positive or negative feelings about Herr Doktor Freud, the psychiatrist believed it due to underlying unresolved issues, usually about mom or dad. The heart of the problem having thus been uncovered, Dr. Freud could begin his “heart” surgery.

Still, patients wish to know “personal” things about the mysterious humanoid who treats them and will comment on the imbalance in unfolding that which is most intimate: the therapist gets to ask, the patient mostly does not. Spacefreedomlove, a provocative…

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Trigger troubles – BPD and parenting, Part 1

triggers parentingAs with every book, I believe there is a time for every post. And given the day I have had looking after my children on my own, while my husband is away, today is definitely the day for this post. More than once, I felt like putting my head in my hands, and dissolving into tears.

For some time now, I have been semi-consciously avoiding writing a post about parenting. Part of it is due to an illogical belief that by keeping my children out of my blog, I am keeping them away from the darker side of my world, even though in reality, they live with it every day. But it is also due to a fear that they might someday find my blog, and I don’t want them to see anything there that might ever lead them to doubt how I feel about them, or to blame themselves for anything that I may have said or done.

However, it occurs to me that if they ever were to read my blog (strictly R rated –so not for a while!), they might in fact find it helpful in explaining some of the things they have seen or the ways in which I behave. It may be a relief to understand, rather than a burden. And given the importance of the topic, I do feel a need to write about it: not just for those with BPD who have children and who might understand; but particularly for those with BPD who don’t have children, and who might want to understand the implications for their condition – and vice versa – of becoming a parent.

Let me first say this: I believe parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and it is challenging for everyone. It is immensely hard whether you have mental health difficulties or not; whether you are a working parent or a stay-at-home parent. Nevertheless I think there are some particular challenges to parenting if you also have BPD, and those are to do with the fundamental characteristics of the disorder, and of its origins. I am going to split my post on parenting into three parts: Trigger troubles; Toddler troubles; and Transported troubles. Parts 2 and 3 will follow in subsequent weeks, but for now, I wanted to focus on the ways in which parenting can be a minefield if you have BPD – and your children can be the triggers that set off the explosions and the pain within you. The ways in which we may react to those triggers, because of BPD, will be covered in Part 2.

I was recently struck by a post called ‘Help! I have borderline personality disorder and my dog betrayed me!’, by Jeremy Medlock (and his dog Frankie!), of the ‘Out of the Box’ project. The post included the following lines:

“A relatively small event can trigger a huge emotional response, completely uncontrollable and unstoppable……once Frankie has ignore me, she’s instantly triggered the borderline and I have to hold control for what happens next”.

These words resonated with me immediately – and not just because one of my closest friends (also a dog owner) keeps telling me how alike dogs and toddlers are. I struggle with parenting because my children continually trigger the borderline, and it’s a constant battle to try and keep my reactions under control. I will admit that my children are towards the naughtier end of the scale, but this is not the only reason I find them triggering: children will always (to a greater or lesser extent) trigger their parents with BPD, because of aspects which are inherent to being a child.

Some of the most common triggers for those with BPD are: loss of control or feeling controlled; not being listened to; not feeling understood; being criticised; being emotionally invalidated; having one’s needs ignored; feeling engulfed and having one’s boundaries violated; and feeling abandoned.

Children are constantly acting in ways that trigger those feelings, and it’s not their fault – it’s part of what being a child is all about. My children do it in a million ways:

  • Acting in ways which I am powerless to change (for example, waking up early);
  • Vying with me for control over every little thing;
  • Constantly ignoring me and not listening to what I ask them to do;
  • Making constant demands on me and not understanding that I have needs of my own;
  • Ignoring or minimising my emotions or criticising my behaviour;
  • Clinging to me or losing emotional control (which can feel like I am being engulfed or ‘attacked’ by their turbulent emotions, and those emotions feel as though they are going to overwhelm me);
  • Growing up – which leaves me always conscious of the fact that one day, they will abandon me, and I have to try and live with the certainty of inevitable loss.

These things are an expected and usual part of children’s behaviour, and I’m sure every parent finds them frustrating and difficult to deal with. For someone with BPD the emotional response to those frustrations is instant, enormous, and it can feel uncontrollable and overwhelming. I can appreciate, intellectually, that my children are just being children, and are not ‘out to get me’, but as with so many aspects of BPD, the intellectual appreciation has little power to moderate my emotional response. And unfortunately, however powerful my love may be for my children – and it is – love doesn’t moderate my emotional response either. You can love your child intensely – and they can still trigger you intensely.

There is a fair amount of sobering literature out there, on the ways in which borderline parents can be ‘damaging’ for their children, and I have tried to avoid reading most of it, simply because I find it too difficult and too upsetting to think about, and also because I know that it would be too easy for me to forget that there are positive stories too. I am not denying or trying to make light of the pain that some of those with BPD can and do inflict on their children, knowingly or unknowingly, and I am not excusing it.

But if you are a parent or soon-to-be-parent with BPD, I would like to say this to you, by way of encouragement. I believe that someone with BPD who has self-awareness and insight into their difficulties, can have a real advantage in terms of putting themselves in their child’s shoes and empathising with their emotions and behaviour. If you have BPD you also more-than-likely have a deep understanding and appreciation of the importance of emotional validation and unconditional acceptance, as many with BPD have grown up in an invalidating environment and have not felt accepted for who they are. And there is nothing like feeling invalidated, to make you determined not to do the same to someone else.

Validation: ‘causing a person to feel valued or worthwhile’. If you can show that – and teach it – to your children, you will have given them a supremely important and a lifelong gift. And if you can remember that while you are navigating the minefield and negotiating your trigger troubles, you can more easily hold onto hope that you and your children can emerge on the other side, more or less intact.


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Reblog – ish: BPD symptoms

I have been wanting to reblog this post, entitled ‘BPD symptoms’ for some time, but in the absence of a ‘Reblog’ button (sorely missed on many WordPress pages, as well as in non-Wordpress blogs!) I am including a link instead:

BPD Symptoms by That Borderline Life

What makes this page special, for me, is that it is probably the simplest, most succinct summary in ‘lay person terms’ of the DSM IV criteria for BPD, that I have come across. It’s quick and easy to read, but at the same time is insightful and comprehensive. I hope you find it helpful, particularly as an overview for non-BPD friends or relatives who want to know more!

 

[Unlike a number of BPD blogs, I don’t (yet) have an ‘About BPD’ page, but when I do, its main content will be a link to this excellent post by That Borderline Life. I think it’s incredibly helpful when bloggers contain some information about BPD on their sites. I’m conscious of the fact that I would like to be able to reach out to those who support individuals with BPD, as well as to those with BPD themselves, but I currently have very little ‘purely factual’ (for want of a better word) information about BPD on my blog. In some ways, this is because there are so many out there who have done a much better job than I could do, of pulling all the relevant information together, and I would rather point people to their sites (whether national charities or individuals) than re-invent the wheel. But until I manage to do that by way of my own ‘About BPD’ page, I wanted to share the link to this excellent post.]