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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Inner child and past child

I can’t stop thinking about her – the girl in Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ video, which I wrote about in my “Intensity” post. I have tried and tried to write about other things – important posts about topics I have been wanting to cover for a while – but I just can’t do it. The words simply won’t write themselves and the image of the eleven-year-old Maddie Ziegler just dances into the path of my best endeavours to think about something else.

Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot)It feels strange how a completely random occurrence – happening upon a song and a video that I could have come across at any time over the last few months – has turned into the most pivotal event in my therapy since Christmas. But I guess that’s life. The ordinary can have extraordinary significance, and a chance event can alter the course of a life.

I have been trying to understand what it is about the song and the video that is so powerful, and what it is that it is tapping into. The question that intrigues me most, is “why a child”? The song appears to have an adult theme – the pain and emptiness of substance abuse and losing oneself in a partying lifestyle – but that pain is depicted by a child whose age is only just in double digits. The blonde ‘Sia’ wig and Sia’s description of her video for ‘Elastic Heart’ – in which the same young girl appears alongside a male actor/dancer – as a depiction of her ‘self-states’, implies that it is her ‘inner child’ who is the centrepiece of Chandelier.

I think the power of the song and the video operates on two levels for me: it has resonances with one of the worst periods of my life, when I completely ‘lost myself’ as an adult, but when I suspect that the inner child was in control (or rather, she was uppermost, but out of control); and it also reminds me of childhood itself.

My therapist said that for her, Maddie’s dance was indicative of someone who just didn’t know what to do with themselves. Reviews that I have read, described her as depicting someone ‘barely in control’, almost literally ‘climbing the walls’. I know that feeling. In my early twenties I went through a period which I can only describe as ‘losing touch with reality’. It was a ‘party period’, and sometimes when I describe it, people simply see it as ‘experimentation’. But nothing can shake my conviction that that was not what it was. Looking back on that time, even a few months afterwards, I couldn’t recognise myself. I had no sense of myself, of my values, or of any boundaries. Things that would ordinarily have been important to me  – for example, the opinion of those in positions of authority – were not so much unimportant, as not remotely in the picture.

I partied, I drank, I acted out – mostly with people I had little interest in or attraction to. For a while, the more I lost control, the more powerful I felt. Though never confident in my appearance, I developed bizarre delusions of grandeur in that I thought I could have anyone I wanted. But as time went on, the loss of control didn’t feel like power anymore. I was on auto-pilot – the acting out became habitual, not something I wanted to do, but something I just did. And although for a while ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ were simply immaterial, as time went on I was disturbed by vivid ‘religious experiences’ in which I felt as though God and the Devil were battling it out for my soul. I was in a lot of pain – and doing my very best not to feel it. Eventually it got to the point where I think I was dissociating a lot of the time. I remember occasions when I felt as though I was simply watching myself (or at least, someone who looked like me), from outside my body.

Whatever it was that my ‘inner child’ was searching for – affirmation, validation, love, acceptance, something to fill an emptiness – she wasn’t finding it. And throughout all that time I think that she was inwardly desperate for someone to put the brakes on; to challenge her and to set her some boundaries. I felt betrayed by the fact that no one did  – neither my friends, nor my church family, even though they were all witnesses to what was going on. I saw the looks of disapproval and pity – but no one cared or dared enough to speak their mind. Until one day someone did – someone who I barely knew and who certainly didn’t care about me. But they did what needed to be done, and for that I’m grateful, as it was the starting point of a change.

For me, the song’s connection with that period of my life and with the ‘inner child’s’ needs that were driving the adult behaviour, was the first interpretation that came to mind. But the more I watched the video, the more conscious I became of the connection with my emotional experience growing up. The thing about Sia’s ‘child state’, is that she is performing a dance, but she is also, in quite a different sense, ‘putting on a performance’. One commentator described sections of the video as involving a party, with the dancer entertaining her ‘invisible guests’. For me, this is almost like looking at a negative. In one sense, it is the guests who are ‘real’ and the ‘performance’ that is a lie, the cover-up for something hidden – but what we see is the picture pulled inside out, revealing the emotions underneath. What this brings out for me, more than anything else, is how alone she is with her emotions. ‘Help me, I’m holding on for dear life’. A room full of party guests but each one as insubstantial, vacuous and transparent as thin air – there is no meaningful connection anywhere. She is barely holding on, but no one can see it, and all she can do is try and numb the pain, push it down where she can’t feel it, and carry on pretending and putting on a fake smile.

What affected me more than anything, I think, was her alone-ness. The fact that she was on her own with her intense emotions. Whether you see that as being literally alone, dancing in an empty flat, or alone amidst a room full of invisible guests – there was no one alongside her in her experience. It reminded me of myself: whether it was experiencing loss, massive upheaval, bereavement, rejection, fear or panic – I kept it all inside. I think the song and video were powerful triggers of that sense of feeling alone with my experience – with no one ‘safe’ enough to share it with. No one who could properly validate it or accept it and who wouldn’t belittle or dismiss it. No one who could contain it in such a way as to ensure that their own reactions didn’t overwhelm me even further. My life was full of people – parents, relatives, friends – but when it came to being present with me in my internal struggles, they were essentially invisible.

But I’ve also come to believe that my reaction to the video is not just about what the child in the video reminds me of. It’s what the child means to me. When your mind tells you something you know cannot be true, you have to question why. I love that little girl – which is clearly impossible, as I do not know her. I can only think that watching her on screen, relating to some of the emotions that she is portraying, allows me to project myself onto her in some way. In the last episode of Season 2 of ‘My Mad Fat Diary’ (a UK drama series from a couple of years ago), the female protagonist is asked by her therapist to imagine talking to her younger self. By revealing the compassion she has for the child she used to be, and by showing her that she is still the same person she was then, the therapist tries to encourage her to have love and compassion for herself in the present. I have tried this thought experiment myself – but instead of feeling compassion or love for the ‘younger me’, all I feel is dislike, resentment and anger. I think that I blame her – if she had been stronger, more resilient, if she had been different somehow, perhaps I wouldn’t be where I am now. Perhaps my life would have been different. She could have saved me; but she failed.

But when I see little Maddie Ziegler on screen and identify with her emotions, I want to let her know that she is loved. While she out there on a screen, two-dimensional though still incredibly full of life, I can have a sense of validating and caring for the parts of me that she is representing. But the moment I try and bring that image inside me; the moment I try and internalise it and really look at the ‘child within’, those feelings completely disappear. I’m back to viewing her through that other lens – the one that has picked up the dirt and discolourations of the attitudes I was surrounded by when growing up.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I have listened to the song and watched the video. The experience has shifted from the sheer power of emotion, to the power of analysis and interpretation. It’s a goldmine of therapeutic material. Interestingly, in a most appropriate ‘freudian slip’ of the written kind, I mistakenly wrote ‘minefield’ rather than ‘goldmine’, in the first iteration of that sentence. To be honest, either will do – both are equally true. I have a feeling I will be exploring that goldmine/minefield for some time to come – I just hope I can survive the experience.

 

Image attribution: “Sia – Chandelier (music video screenshot)” by Source (WP:NFCC#4). Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot).jpg#mediaviewer/File:Sia_-_Chandelier_(music_video_screenshot).jpg

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Intensity

I feel as though I must have been living under a rock not to have come across this song until now – which was released in the UK in June 2014 and is still in the UK Official Singles chart. What I find just as unbelievable is that I had also, therefore, never come across the official video for the song – which has been viewed more than half a BILLION times on Youtube.

I watched the video for Sia’s ‘Chandelier’ for the first time a few days ago, and I was bowled over. It completely blew my mind. It felt haunting, disturbing, desperately sad. The words, the music and the dance came together to create a powerfully moving experience. But it wasn’t just an experience about a girl in a song, or a girl on a screen. How can you explain it when you know that what you’re feeling is profound and significant but you don’t understand how? That the song may not be directly about you, but your experience of it and response to it could reveal so much?

I watched it again and again and again, absolutely hooked, feeling completely taken over by the experience. My emotions were building, and pushing against my chest wall to get out. But it wasn’t until I read a beautiful and revealing blog post on the subject of trust, that all of a sudden a switch was flipped, and a torrent of emotions started to swirl around and flow out. The song and the visuals had tapped into something – but the written words connected to it, magnified it, and set it free.

Looking back, it all feels somewhat unreal, and I’m still unsure of its meaning. All I know is that as I sat there with tears pouring down my face, in the middle of an emotional storm, confused about what my emotions were – I also felt grateful for the intensity. Grateful that I felt as though I could hardly contain the waterfall of emotion that wanted to pour out. Grateful that I felt full – however much fullness felt like hurting and despair.

At times like those, I wish that I could instantly transport myself to therapy, where it would be safe to fully experience those emotions, and to explore their meaning. I can’t help feeling that had I been able to do so, something significant, something ultimately healing, might have taken place. Instead, I tried to contain the tears as best I could, conscious that my husband was in the other room and could come in at any moment. And now, I don’t feel I have easy access to that place again. I can think about my response; I can try to understand it. But the emotion is no longer accessible to me.

When I write about songs that have had an impact on me, I sometimes quote lines from those songs. In this case, I want to quote quite substantially, because for me, so much of the power of the dance is in the way that is combines not just with the music, but with the words. It sounds obvious – but I often find myself listening to music without really hearing the words, and in this case, the words are vital. How many of us can relate to trying to numb the pain, to pushing it down? To that desperate sense of holding on for dear life? And how many of us feel so very young when we experience those things? As young as the twelve-year old child in this dance?

With apologies to Sia for a slight re-ordering of verses….

“Party girls don’t get hurt
Can’t feel anything, when will I learn
I push it down, push it down

I’m the one “for a good time call”
Phone’s blowin’ up, they’re ringin’ my doorbell
I feel the love, feel the love

Sun is up, I’m a mess
Gotta get out now, gotta run from this
Here comes the shame, here comes the shame

1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 drink
1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 drink
1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 drink

Throw ’em back, till I lose count

I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier
I’m gonna live like tomorrow doesn’t exist
Like it doesn’t exist
I’m gonna fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry
I’m gonna swing from the chandelier, from the chandelier

But I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes
Keep my glass full until morning light, ’cause I’m just holding on for tonight
Help me, I’m holding on for dear life, won’t look down won’t open my eyes
Keep my glass full until morning light, ’cause I’m just holding on for tonight
On for tonight….”

[Sia, ‘Chandelier’]

 


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Trust: The High Hurdle of Therapy

I believe that for me, this is one of the most important blog posts I am ever likely to read. The topic is trust – trust in therapy, but also trust in other relationships as well. It is a large part of what can make any relationship sometimes therapeutic, and sometimes not (to use Dr Stein’s phraseology).
I don’t want to say too much about this post -it speaks volumes, about an immensely difficult and often painful topic. One of the things that makes it so extraordinary is that a number of metaphors are used to convey the nature of trust and how it is built up. The metaphors are both extremely illuminating, and incredibly beautiful.
It’s a wonderful piece of writing; it’s an intellectually interesting and effective way of conveying a complex concept and revealing its core. But most importantly (and effectively) for me, it’s utterly emotionally convicting, and goes straight to the matter of my heart.

Dr. Gerald Stein

512px-Spinsel_op_het_weiland

All relationships are either therapeutic or non-therapeutic. Or perhaps I should say, sometimes therapeutic and sometimes not. A relationship with a counselor is not exempt from this complication. Bloggers in treatment suggest that no other topic so unsettles the soul.

The heart is easily torn. A therapist tries to get inside a patient in a way more intimate than most sexual encounters. The client is expected to strip down before the healer in a metaphorical sense. Remember, our custom of shaking hands derives from the need of two souls to prove they are unarmed — that to be near is not to risk injury. Even without weapons, however, danger is there.

Partners in friendship, love, and therapy make assumptions. Sometimes these unstated beliefs undermine the possibility of understanding and trust. Trust is like a garment made out of words and expressions; actions and expectations. In the space of less than…

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Making all things new – BPD and idealism

Behold I make all things new“.

I am not about to launch into a sermon, though some may recognise this as a quote from Chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation. As I described in an earlier post, my Faith, though hanging on by its fingertips, has been ‘on the back burner’ for a while, and this is not a part of the Bible that I have come across either in church or elsewhere, for some time. Nevertheless, the wonders of the human mind and free association meant that for some reason it was this phrase that flew into my mind when I was trying to process my last therapy session.

It was an unexpectedly tough session. Just over three weeks ago I wrote about how disconnected I’d been feeling from my therapist since the Christmas break, and all of a sudden last week, we were right back in that same place again. The process of writing and talking about my ‘open letter to my therapist’ had helped to re-establish connection, and we had talked about how I am still connected to her, even if I cannot feel it in a particular moment. As a result, I had thought that we were back on track and that I had at least until the Easter break before I had to deal with another possible episode of disconnection!

Not only did we establish reconnection, we went further in terms of trust and intimacy than I think we ever have before. Two weeks ago we had an amazing session in which, with her help, I managed to talk about topics that had been on my mind for many months, but which I had not had the courage to broach before. It was very difficult, and very uncomfortable, but she made it possible, and more than that, she made it feel safe.

And yet last week I was back to longing for words of reassurance and acceptance, and resenting her (or, so I thought, ‘the process’), for not providing them. It turns out that I might have made intellectual peace with the idea that not receiving frequent verbal reassurance will ultimately be ‘good for me’, but that part of me is still not emotionally convinced. The moment I feel really vulnerable and alone, and my mood crashes, I start longing for that affirmation, and needing it from her. Feeling as though I’m not getting what I need, leaves me feeling closed off, and holding back.

During my last session, it was incredibly difficult to get any words out. The session was a bizarre mixture of feeling unable or unwilling to talk, and waves of mixed up emotion that I could attach no meaning to and that simply left me wondering what on earth was going on. I know that therapy is a setting in which past experiences can be re-played – and I had a definite sense that something was playing out, but I had no idea what it was. It was when I came home, completely perplexed about how and why things had turned out as they did, that the phrase “Behold, I make all things new“, came into my mind.

It seems too random, too strange to ignore. What does it mean, in this context? What resonances does it have? In the context in which the phrase appears in Revelation, it is about restoration and redemption. It’s about God creating a new and perfect heaven and earth, where separation between God and man is eliminated  (reflected in the fact that ‘there is no more sea’ between them). There’s no patching up of a broken world, or of a broken relationship – there is complete renewal, and a completely restored relationship between the earthly and the divine.

When I emailed my therapist to tell her that this phrase had suggested itself to me, she wrote back with another line from Revelation 21 – “for the former things are passed away”. I think that her interpretation would be that I’m struggling to adapt to the ‘new’ (therapy with her) and am still clinging to the ‘old’ (Jane, my ex-therapist), and am finding it difficult to let go. It reminds me of the sessions just before Christmas when I simply couldn’t choose which of two topics to talk about, and spent ages in silence, just paralysed by indecision. In that instance too, my therapist had suggested that choosing meant letting go of one option, and that I found that very difficult.

But for me, both cases feel as though they are much more about the situation I’m in, than the one that I have had to let go. The psychiatrist who diagnosed me with BPD said that I needed to let go of the notion of ‘perfect care’, because it did not exist. My difficulty, I think, is not so much with letting go, as with letting go of perfection – in all its many forms. I don’t mind putting aside a topic of conversation until another day – but I find it very difficult to deal with the idea that what we do end up talking about, might not go well. While they are still just topics up for discussion, I can imagine a situation in which they each result in emotional, productive, memorable and important sessions. What happens when I choose one is that I have to give up that perfect scenario and trade it for a reality that may fall far below ‘the ideal’.

When I was little I loved the story of Pollyanna – a little girl who always found something to be glad about, in any situation. What I didn’t realise, until I googled it just now, is that people’s interpretations of Pollyanna are divided between those who think that she saw the negative but simply chose to emphasize the positive; and those who think that she was blindly optimistic and refused to see or acknowledge the negative. I certainly ‘re-cast’ past or present difficulties in therapy, in such a way as to draw out the positive. However, I don’t think that’s by way of ‘making the best’ of a situation, because that would involve accepting that the situation does not conform to my definition of ‘ideal’ to start with. It’s about making it a ‘new’ situation, and allowing the restored present to redeem the past.

I used to worry about how I would ever reach a position of deep trust and intimacy with my therapist, when we had such a rocky and difficult start. For me, ruptured relationships have tended to stay ruptured, and very rarely have I had either the desire or the ability to restore them. But when it came to my therapist, I solved my own problem by a logical and perceptual contortion in which the ‘perfect therapy’ became defined as one that is ultimately forged in the fire of tribulation.

I think what I’ve stumbled upon is another example of an absolutely ingrained world-view related to my BPD – another example of a distorted lens through which I see the world. Back in December, I described how in my borderline mind, my fundamental desire to be perfectly understood and loved, coloured the way I saw and interpreted everything I came across. I think what I’m now realising, is that my desire for perfection in general, does the same. Perhaps my desire for perfect love and understanding is simply a sub-set of that bigger hunger. A hunger for idealism – defined as ‘an unrealistic belief in or pursuit of perfection’.

It is hard – very hard – for many people with BPD to hold two conflicting notions side by side. Hard to accept that someone or something can be both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ at the same time. That is why one of the key symptoms of BPD is ‘splitting’ or ‘black and white thinking’, in which one’s views and feelings about someone alternate between thinking they are ‘all good’ or ‘all bad’. Holding these opposite notions together is difficult because in my head, the ‘bad’ taints the ‘good’, unless I can somehow make the negative into a positive, so that the whole picture can ‘look rosy’ again, without the dark patches making it look ugly.

But there are two other implications of ‘making all things new’, and re-casting reality in a different light. It means never having to patch anything up – never having to struggle to fix anything. A ruptured relationship is ‘miraculously’ transformed, or the rupture is completely ignored. Mending feels too difficult, too ‘grown up’. I don’t have a template for adult mending – every argument I ever had with my parents was simply buried, ignored and never mentioned again. Nothing was ever properly resolved.

Making all things new also means not having to live with your mistakes – something I find it incredibly hard to do, and which makes me incredibly anxious. Sometimes it feels as though I spend my life in the avoidance of self-blame, guilt and regret over ‘bad decisions’. Having them wiped out is so much easier than having them ‘in the frame’ where I may be continually reminded of them, unable to escape the anxiety they cause me because I am unable to accept myself, and the world, as we truly are. Flawed, but fine.

Both before and after my last therapy session, I had an immense desire for reconnection and for restoration of our therapeutic relationship. I had imagined apologising for ‘having been so stupid’ in doubting my therapist again; and I imagined a free and easy conversation in which we talked about how the situation had come about. I wanted to redeem myself in her eyes, and to renew our bond. I wanted there to be no more separation between us – no more sea.

I think she would say that things were never perfect – but neither were they ruptured. That no restoration or redemption was necessary. Difficult sessions, time apart, negative feelings I may have had towards her, awkward conversations – none of that had ‘tainted’ our relationship. Our connection was still intact through all of that, even if my perception of it was not. And that was something we could work on – we could work to fix the rupture, even if it was ‘just’ perceptual. But that’s to have her viewpoint on the world, which is not yet my own.

I just wanted to make all things new – and perfect again, for a little while.

 

[I sent my therapist an earlier draft of this post before my last session, and when we discussed it, I asked her if my interpretation of the reason for her quote from Revelation, was accurate. She said that it wasn’t – that the ‘former things’ that she had in mind were things or ways of thinking from my past, and were not related to my ex-therapist. I’m not sure how I felt about ‘getting it wrong’! But the mistake was interesting in itself. I often worry that my therapist will think that I am still comparing her with my ex-therapist, Jane – but it seems I may be the only one who is still hung up on the comparison, and much more so than I had thought!]


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Money talks…

…and when I took out a coin to pay the parking metre just before my last therapy session – having worried all the way there about the fact I hadn’t planned what I was going to talk about – it said this:

be prepared for therapy final

Which is bang on the money, I’d say.

 


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Memory Monday – “Selective hearing – and all that jazz”

I’m not digging that deep into my archives for Memory Monday this week – this post is only five months old. However, it is so incredibly apt for where I am right now (again), that I could not ignore its call.

https://lifeinabind.com/2014/09/12/selective-hearing-and-all-that-jazz/

I have found it difficult to settle back into therapy since the Christmas break. I went from feeling completely disconnected, to feeling overwhelmingly reconnected, to feeling resentful and distrustful of the process. I thought I’d made progress in terms of understanding and accepting why my therapist might not always give reassurance, or why it might not always come in the form of words. But in my last session I found myself back in that old familiar place of feeling desperate for explicit verbal reassurance and validation, and feeling resentful in my perception that what I needed was being withheld.

One of the things that has changed, I think, since I wrote the original post, is that my therapist and I know each other a little better, and she is more openly challenging than she was. She pointed out to me that it seemed as though I thought that she was not providing me with something I wanted – but that there could be another explanation. That I was not receiving it.

In my post, I wrote that “I am the one who needs to be receptive“. In its conclusion, I noted that “perhaps for me, in therapy, I should be thinking not so much ‘what am I expecting to hear?’ but ‘what are the words, at this moment in time, providing for me, that I am missing?’ “.

I’m sure that my therapist is right. I’m sure that for a number of reasons – including perhaps a ‘push-pull’ reaction to my intense feelings for her following a recent difficult, but intimate and safe session – I was tuning her out, in every way. Her words were not being heard in the present or remembered from the past. Her actions were not being noted or were being misinterpreted.

If I can remain open to the possibility, I could go further than I did in the conclusion to my post. My therapist has talked about finding reassurance and caring in the ‘ordinary’ things. Perhaps I should be thinking not so much ‘what am I expecting to hear?’, but ‘what could I be receiving from the world around me, including the actions as well as the words of others, that I am missing?’

 


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Hope for love

For many couples affected by mental illness, this Valentine’s Day won’t be about candle-lit dinners, flowers, or romantic dates; looking forward to the future or reminiscing about the past. It will be about getting through and trying to understand; making amends and holding onto hope. It will be about breaking down the walls around our hearts that we put there to protect ourselves and help us to co-exist without being permanently in pain.

For me, this song really captures those feelings of anger and hurt that have been so much a part of my married life for the last three years. The images convey so clearly that sense of frustration at being completely unable to reach through to someone who is only a few feet away. But it also conveys a  sense of holding onto hope in the face of pain, and fighting to keep a connection alive. It’s an urgent encouragement to keep the plane in the air and to try and navigate back to where the journey started, and to how things used to be.

“I wanna turn the clock….
Right back to where it was
So let’s build a bridge….
From your side to mine
I’ll be the one to cross over
Just tell me it’s not the end of the line

I never meant to break your heart
I won’t let this plane go down
I never meant to make you cry
I’ll do what it takes to make this fly…”

[Olly Murs and Demi Lovato – Up]

There are so many Valentine’s cards you can’t buy if you and your relationship are struggling because of mental health difficulties, because the messages simply don’t feel appropriate. This Valentine’s Day I won’t be saying ‘be my Valentine now and forever’, but ‘be my co-pilot on this rescue mission’. I won’t be saying ‘hold me tight’ but ‘hold onto hope’. If I can knock through even a couple more bricks in the wall between us this Valentine’s Day, that will be worth more than a hundred candle-lit dinners and a thousand red roses.