Life in a Bind – BPD and me

My therapy journey, recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I write for , for Planet Mindful magazine, and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by


‘Hope’ – Mind creative writing competition

[A couple of weeks ago I was honoured and excited to find out that I had won a highly commended runners’ up place in the 2015 Mind Creative Writing Competition, in partnership with Penguin Random House UK. The theme for the competition was ‘Hope’, and an extract from an interview with the competition’s winner, Louise, was recently published on the Mind website. The full interview and her entry (on the subject of finding hope in the aftermath of her brother’s suicide), will be published in the January edition of Mind News.

My own entry follows below – those who have been reading my blog for a little while may recognise it as a re-worked version of an early blog post! Very many thanks to Mind and Penguin Random House UK for their kind and valuable feedback on this piece, and for the much appreciated prize  – a box of goodies which turned out to be amazingly serendipitous!]

The rainbow of therapy

What is a rainbow? “Hope, shining upon the tears of grief” Robert Ingersoll

When we struggle with our mental health, hope can feel like such a precarious state. Any hint of it feels more like ‘hoping against hope’: hoping in the face of hopelessness; hoping even when one is abandoned by hope. We may be so aware of the shifting nature of our sense of self and the volatility of our emotions, that we cannot believe that hope will last. We may be so used to every positive situation being tinged with something dark, that sometimes hopefulness simply feels like misery in disguise.

I remember being asked by a therapist a couple of years ago, what I would want if she could just wave a magic wand and make anything at all happen. I sat there with tears rolling down my face, completely unable to think of anything to say. It wasn’t a case of not being able to decide, or not knowing what I wanted. It was the fact that the very concept of a future – any future, let alone one that was ‘better’ than the present – was completely unthinkable. I simply could not see beyond the present pain, and hadn’t been able to, for quite some time. The ‘future’ spoke of hope – but I had been abandoned by hope.

A few months later, a different therapist referred to the progress I had been making in one particular area, as ‘a success’. My resulting tears seemed to baffle her, but somehow I found it difficult and distressing to think of anything I had been doing, as ‘a success’. Success had always been so important to me – but having a reached a state in which I felt little control over my life, and had little self-esteem, the concept of succeeding at anything, was also unthinkable. It was too painful to be praised. ‘Success’ spoke of hope – but I had been abandoned by hope.

They say that hope sustains life – but it seems to me that love sustains life long enough to give birth to hope that that sustenance will continue. If I felt abandoned by hope, it was because I felt abandoned by love. Abandoned in the present, and in a way that I’m still trying to properly understand, abandoned in the past. I remember very clearly the strong desire, when growing up, to be loved unconditionally by someone who did not have the biological imperative to do so. I can see now that my thinking was rather confused: I thought that parents were programmed to love their offspring unconditionally, but this is a contradiction in terms. Love is not about programming but about acceptance – and while thinking that my parents loved me unconditionally, I was also very aware of the areas in which I ‘fell short’, did not meet expectations, or was something other than what I was desired to be. Hence the need to be loved by somebody who chose to love me – choice implied acceptance, something I did not feel I had.

I have been in therapy for a little while – long enough to see that it is making a difference, even when it feels as though it is two steps forward and a giant leap back. Long enough for that difference to lead to glimmers of hope. Not hope in the face of hopelessness, but hope in the face of possibility – the possibility of recovery, and the possibility of change. Sometimes I come away from therapy sessions hurting immensely. Incapable of asking for reassurance directly, I allow fears over lack of acceptance to spiral out of control, such that everything my therapist says (or doesn’t say) contributes to the excruciating sense that I am unwanted, disliked and uncared for. Sometimes I can barely speak, paralysed by fear of further hurt and an overwhelming desire to just shut down. I drift in and out of being emotionally present, but she reaches out to me, and gradually, we work through how I am feeling, and why.

Ultimately, it is this ‘working through’ that has given me a glimpse, more than anything, of the transformative power of the therapeutic relationship, and that glimpse has given me hope. I have realised that although it is easy for me to feel hurt, it is also easy for me to feel loved. My therapist’s words and actions show me that. That feeling is very hard to hold onto, and so I often bring those words, those actions, and that caring to mind, not just because they are the foundations of the trust that we have built, but also because they help to keep the whole edifice from crumbling when it is the subject of internal attack.

I have also realised, with amazement, that my therapist responds to my needs and has made a commitment to continue to do so. It’s hard to explain how deeply it touches me to know that someone is trying to meet me ‘where I am at’. To know that I have been heard and my viewpoint accepted; to know that I haven’t had to justify how I feel or to be ashamed of it; to know that it is possible for me to voice my feelings and my needs, and for something to change as a result. I find it hard to get my head around, and it feels truly humbling.

Finally, this ‘working through’ has also brought a revelation. Though on one level it seems so obvious, when the ‘lightbulb moment’ came, it seemed a beautifully simple and surprising idea. It was an emotional revelation, if not an intellectual one – I knew it because I felt it, and because I felt it, it gave me hope. Feeling loved for who we are, makes us feel freer and stronger. So often over the last few years, I have tried to derive comfort from things which were self-destructive; things which gave me the illusion of an all-enveloping hug, but which in reality were only hurting me further. It scares me to say it, but the comfort of this revelation felt better.

Feeling loved for who we are, makes us feel freer and stronger. It sends a shiver down my spine. I dare not hope.

But hope I do.



Short story – untitled and unfinished

[An introduction to this short story, written when I was around sixteen, is given in my post ‘Short story – prologue‘. It is emotionally substantially autobiographical – even if the precise events and circumstances are not.]

She cradled me in her arms like she used to; only now I was twelve years old. No longer a baby; no longer, even, a child. My head lay on her shoulder and her wrinkled hands held tightly onto mine. The rhythmical motion of the rocking chair dragged down my eyelids, but I forced them open. I didn’t want to miss the sunset. I had to see it; I had to see it for her. I was her eyes now that she was blind. That would never change, whether I saw the sunset or not; it wouldn’t matter to her, but it mattered to me. It mattered because some day I too might be blind, and I wanted to remember what a sunset looked like. Suddenly it was all important that I should remember, and just as suddenly the atmosphere around me seemed too insubstantial to be remembered, leaving me longing for another sunset, and another. It was always the same. For as long as I could remember, it had always been this way. Just me and her, my grandmother, sitting together outside our front door, watching the sunset. It was the time when we felt closest to one another- no words marred the perfect understanding which seemed to exist between us. It was as though we were the only two human beings on the island; nothing else existed for us apart from the blood-red sun slowly sinking into the sea. This was how I always wanted it to be, and saw no reason to suppose it would ever change.


The first thing I always heard when I awoke, was grandmother’s breathing from the bed beside me. I lay still for a while, enjoying the morning silence and the summer sunshine streaming in through the window, warming my legs. I got up quietly, without waking grandmother, and put on a skirt and a faded old shirt which had belonged first to my grandmother, then to my mother, and now to me. Though my mother’s picture lay on the dressing table beside me, I could not remember her. She had died when I was two years old. My grandmother had always refused to tell me anything about my father, and there were no pictures of him in the house. I had long ceased to wonder about him.

I knelt by my bed and said a prayer. Before I left the room I kissed the picture of Jesus above my bed. My daily routine had started all over again. Ever since my grandmother became blind, when I was six year old, I had taken over the position of housewife. This meant that I could not go to school and had no time to associate with children of my own age, of which there were few. Most of the young and middle-aged people had moved to the mainland, where they could make a better living, leaving the older people behind. As I walked down the hill to the baker’s, I saw countless old ladies like my grandmother, sitting on their doorsteps, knitting. The older men were in the cafes, reading newspapers. I saw children playing in the streets, but didn’t identify with them, didn’t even know them, since I did not go to school like they did.

Grandmother had taught me all I knew. Of mathematics and of science and geography I was ignorant, but of history, literature, philosophy and art, I knew more than most. Grandmother was interested in enriching my soul, as well as my mind. But to her, the most important thing she taught me about was religion. Religious piety was the one thing she instilled in me from a very early age. So it was, that every morning on returning from the shops, I made a quick visit to church to light a candle and to pray for myself and for my grandmother. I felt a peculiar stillness and contentment in church.

When I returned home I had to cook lunch, and after that grandmother lay down for her usual afternoon sleep. I never slept in the afternoon; I was never tired enough. And somehow it seemed to me like a waste to spend a whole afternoon sleeping, when I could be doing other things. So I read a book, and when grandmother awoke, I went swimming.


The water was warm. I picked up a handful of sand from the sea-bed and watched it run through my fingers. My time was running out. Ten, nine, eight, seven…I swam to the surface of the water quickly, and burst through it, gasping for air. I lay on my back to recover my breath. When I could breathe normally again, I started to swim further out to sea. Turning towards the shore for a moment, I looked up at the top of the hill, and saw grandmother sitting in her rocking chair. As though she had some sixth sense and knew I was watching her, she waved to me. I waved back, and though I knew she could not see me, I sensed that she knew I had waved – such was the closeness that existed between us. My heart sang as I turned from the shore, and dived back into the sea.


I knelt by my bed after turning out the light. “God, please bless everyone, and keep us all safe, especially my grandmother. Amen”.


The ferry glided into the tiny harbour, its decks full of noisy tourists in funny hats and ridiculous shorts. I watched them from a street corner, shouting to their children in languages I could not understand. Grandmother had been sad that morning, for she knew that now, since summer was well under way, the annual flood of tourists was inevitable, and this distressed her. She’d lived on the island all her life, and had never been anywhere else. She loved the place, but as it had been when she was a girl, playing hide and seek in its cobbled alleys. An island set apart from the rest of civilization, a haven of quiet, simple country life, where everyone knew and trusted each other. The tourists started to arrive and the island became more and more commercialized. Hotels multiplied, discotheques disrupted the night-time silence, beaches became overcrowded and dirty. But worst of all, the community spirit of the inhabitants of the island started to fade, and then people changed. Now, they were simply out to make money. Our tiny society had finally become greedy, caring more about their pockets, than about the island and its people, and this saddened my grandmother and hurt her deeply. She no longer identified with the people around her – a lot of them ‘foreigners’ – and so ceased to go out very much. Her home was the only thing which hadn’t changed since she was a girl, and so she centred her life around it and chose me as her only companion. She fed me with stories of her childhood and the island as it used to be, so that the place she had known would not die, it would live on in me; and so that I would never become greedy, like the rest, but would cherish the true values of honesty and love for other people. I was constantly with her and rarely had contact with other children. I used to sometimes wish that I could go and simply play with others of my own age. Having got used to my daily routine of looking after grandmother and the house, my wish faded, but it was still there, waiting to be re-awakened, though at the time, I was not conscious of it. That is, not until I met Helen.


She came up to me as I was sitting on our front door-step, reading. She was short, and very fair, with pale blue eyes such as I had never seen before. I looked up at her and she smiled. Pointing at herself she said ‘Helen’. I told her my own name and she smiled again. She pointed to herself again and then held up all ten fingers, and then one finger. I realised that she was trying to tell me that she was eleven years old. I was surprised, for she looked older. When I had signalled back my age, she took my hand and pulled me from the front door. She wanted me to go somewhere with her. I hesitated; I felt uncomfortable in her presence. I was in awe of the way she simply came up to me and started talking; the ease with which she spoke to a total stranger, and her lack of inhibitions. Being constantly in the house with grandmother had made me shy, and uneasy about meeting people. I couldn’t relax or be myself. Here was a child a year younger than me, and yet I felt so inferior to her and did not know why. She continued to pull my hand, but I held back until grandmother called me. She had heard Helen’s voice. Somehow, she had sensed what was happening, and she told me I could go. I had been trying to fool myself with the excuse that I must stay and look after grandmother, but now that excuse had evaporated.

We walked slowly, not speaking. I felt uncomfortable, though I sensed that she did not. Helen took me to an apartment which her parents had rented for their holidays. It was complete with television and other appliances I had only see a few times, and which we did not have in my grandmother’s house. Then Helen showed me her room and all her toys, of which there were plenty. What amazed me most were her dolls. I marvelled at all their different outfits, and spent what seemed like hours dressing and undressing them and combing their hair. I had no dolls and Helen couldn’t understand why I was so enthralled by them. She thought herself too old to play with them. I couldn’t understand that.


She called me from the bottom of the street. This time I went to her with no question. We held hands, and now I didn’t feel uncomfortable, just pleased. We went down to the beach, where she introduced me to a group of children on holiday. They smiled at me with the same ease as she had done, and accepted me just as quickly. We chased each other along the beach, buried each other in the sand, and did everything together. At first I joined in the games cautiously, but as I became more involved, I started to lose my inhibitions, until that magical moment when I realised I was totally at ease among them. I belonged with them, I was one of them. I felt inferior no longer, a stranger no longer. But above all I felt free, without a care in the world. Something had changed; the child inside me had finally awakened and asked to be allowed to play.


That afternoon, I couldn’t concentrate on the housework. I was restless, my old complacency was gone. For the first time in my life I was impatient and I resented the work I was doing. Suddenly, routine confined me. I felt trapped. For the first time in my life I felt grief for a loss, a need for something that was missing – my childhood. I realized with mixed regret and anger that somehow in my life, I had missed my childhood, skipped over the best and happiest years of my life without noticing. Responsibility was put on my young shoulders and it dragged me into adulthood long before my time. I was serious, responsible, mature, but not happy. Complacent but not happy. For where was the joy, the humour, the carefree nature I suddenly longed to possess. I felt a sudden urge to do something utterly silly and childish, but something held me back. I realised I could not now become a child, though I could experience a child’s world. I could act like a child, but I could never think like one. The fact that I realised this at all, proved it to myself. I felt angry, but I didn’t know at whom. What I did know – what I was aware of – was a deep-seated longing, a desperate desire to be free of responsibility, free of routine. I couldn’t stop thinking of Helen. She became my ideal, my icon. I felt Helen’s presence with me, even when she was not there. She supplanted God as my best friend, and the longing to share in her world moved me almost to tears of frustration. The hours I spent with her, being a child, were magical; and each time I left her, it became harder to go back to my old routine, to my chores. Until one day I knew it was not the chores I resented, but my grandmother. What my soul resented was not being faced with work, but being faced with age, the one thing of which I longed to be rid.


A few days later, Helen once again stood at the bottom of the steep alley and beckoned to me. I waved to her eagerly, my heart racing all the while. I ran into the house to put on some shoes. My grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair with her hands on her lap and her eyes closed. Her knitting lay beside her. I told her I was going to meet Helen, but as I started to leave she grabbed my hand. The grasp was not as strong as it had been when she used to cradle me. I had not noticed this before, but maybe that was because she hadn’t cradled me recently. In a soft, shaky voice, she asked me not to go. I started; it surprised me, this request. I asked her why, but she simply said that she didn’t want me to leave her, not today. Her grasp tightened slightly and suddenly I felt trapped once more, and angry at how unreasonable she was being. The thought came into my mind that she was trying to prevent me from being a child; trying to tie me to the house and to my responsibilities, simply so that I could run around for her. A pang of guilt stopped my train of thought, for I knew that this was not true, but I dismissed it from my mind. Guilt had no place in the ideal child’s world I was striving to create. She pleaded with me to stay, but each plea made my resentment greater and my longing to go to Helen more intense. In the end, I prised my hand out of hers and left the room. The minute I loosed my hand she stopped pleading, as though she knew it was useless. Somewhere in my mind I was conscious of a deep relief that she hadn’t cried as I left the room, but as soon as I re-joined Helen outside in the sunshine, I was conscious of nothing but a newfound freedom, and an overwhelming joy.


Walking home in the darkness, clutching one of Helen’s dolls, I realised that this was the first sunset I hadn’t witnessed sitting outside our front door with my grandmother. Sudden remorse and guilt filled me because I hadn’t been there to see it for her. But this feeling quickly disappeared as I thought about my wonderful afternoon. That afternoon I had come closer to being a child than ever before. Not only had I acted like a child, but for the first time I had begun to think like one, to forget responsibility and what was ‘sensible’. As I approached the house, I noticed with surprise that my grandmother wasn’t sitting outside the house. I went inside and called her name. The house was still, and no one answered. From the table the picture of my mother glared at me.

A sudden uneasiness overtook me, so that when I opened the bedroom door, I did so very slowly, as though afraid of what I might see inside. My grandmother was sitting in her rocking chair, but she was motionless. Her hands lay limp in her lap, her head rested on her shoulder. Her eyes were closed and her knitting was still beside her. She was exactly as I had left her – but something was different, something was missing. An alertness about the mouth, a twitching of the fingers, the rhythmic heaving of the chest. I noticed these things, but did not take them in. I walked to the chair and picked up one of her wrists. Her fingers didn’t reach out to grasp my hands, or her arms to embrace me. When I sat in her lap she didn’t cradle me. Age, the enemy of my childhood was gone, and now I was free to be a child. So I cried like a child, for like a child with a child’s mind, I could not accept death, could not understand why this had to happen, or why God had let it happen. I still don’t understand.



Short story – prologue

Keeping a diary was to all intents and purposes forbidden in my house when I was growing up. Or at least, it was severely frowned upon. My mother was never one for ‘airing one’s dirty laundry in public’; and so she was concerned that a diary might be found and ‘made public’ after one’s death, and then everyone would know one’s innermost thoughts. Quite why that mattered, if you were no longer around to witness it, I was never quite sure.

And so I kept a secret but infrequent record in a book that contains about forty entries over a ten year period, from about the ages of nine to nineteen. When I attempted a more regular record in my late teens, before I went to university, it was discovered (and, I am convinced, read, though this was denied by my parents) and I had to abandon it as the point was quite forcefully made that this was not a good idea.

Nevertheless, my therapist commented at the end of my most recent session, that not many people have such a record of their childhood. I realised that she is right, and that I am very grateful for the ways in which I was able to express myself and to keep a record. I may not have kept a diary, but I have around sixty poems, and a number of short stories or attempts at stories or essays, spanning the ages of around thirteen to twenty three, with the most material concentrated in the period aged fourteen to eighteen. They may not be written in the first person, but they are deeply and obviously autobiographical, despite the altered contexts and the details deliberately changed (sometimes to the very opposite of what they were in ‘real life’). They provide hugely valuable insight and a reminder of how I felt growing up, and what the atmosphere at home was like. And they illuminate the impact of some major events in my life, which I cannot properly remember, either factually or emotionally.

I have shared some of those poems and stories in therapy, and they have proved immensely fruitful and important. I think they have helped my therapist as much as me, because they paint a picture that my very incomplete memories do not allow me to paint; and they put meat on the bones of the little I am able to tell her of my childhood, so much of which is impressionistic, and lacking in detail.

Last week I sent her a short story which I wrote at around the age of sixteen or seventeen. It is unfinished (I don’t think I had the emotional vocabulary to finish it at that age – I knew nothing about how to handle grief); and some of the details and circumstances are the very opposite of my own situation growing up. But in the emotional content I recognise myself immediately. I recognise the picture of a child carrying a responsibility she is not old enough to bear, though in my own case that responsibility was for family members’ emotional well-being, rather than their physical well-being. I recognise – and how little it seems that things have changed since I was sixteen! – the desire for perfect understanding and oneness with another human being who means the world. And I certainly recognise the guilt of failing to keep someone else alive, either emotionally or physically; of abandoning someone in their final hours and depriving them of the comfort or solace that they needed, in a way that is utterly non-reversible and impossible to either seek forgiveness or be forgiven for.

Until I read that story, I’d forgotten the true extent to which my childhood had felt constrained and restricted; the degree to which I felt burdened, angry and resentful of being unable to seek support for my own emotional needs, because they were too much of a threat to other people’s. I had forgotten the extent to which, despite the good times I did have, my growing up was nevertheless accompanied by panic, fear of death, fear of going mad, and the constant denial of self and burying of emotion and sadness.

Sharing that story with my therapist has given me the courage to share it here, as well. It’s only the confidence that she gives me because she is genuinely interested in me, and affirms me, that makes it possible. Although it is ‘just a story’, I hope others might find something they recognise in it as well. Albert Camus wrote that “bad authors are those who write with reference to an inner context which the reader cannot know”. Although the context is my own life and my own emotions, I hope I am not a ‘bad author’ – because I think the internal script in question is one that many of us share, at least in part, even if the individual circumstances are rather different. You will bring your own version of that script to the story, as you read; and I hope that you will be able to take something away from it, too. The story follows in the next post; I feel myself now in a position where I have the emotional vocabulary to write another section or two, and that may come in time. But I still have no idea how the story ends….


A room of my own: a tale of coincidence and carving out a space for myself

Sometimes it really does feel as though the universe is trying to deliver a message. As with the message on a coin (see my post ‘Money talks‘) that I pulled out of my purse as I was about to go into a therapy session without a clue what I was going to talk about.

Today as I drove home from work, for some reason I started thinking about the fact that I don’t really have a space within my house, of my very own. I spend a great deal of time in the lounge: whether that’s playing with the children; watching TV (rarely); writing blog posts in an extremely bad ergonomic position with my laptop on my knee; or surfing the internet aimlessly, trying to fool myself that I am not just avoiding going to bed.

I spend quite a lot of time in the kitchen; not because I love cooking or because I am a fantastic chef – far from it. But because domestic life seems to be an almost never-ending cycle of all the various things that need doing there. I certainly don’t think of it as ‘my space’ –anymore than I think of the lounge or the bathroom as ‘my space’ (though the bathroom is certainly somewhere I retreat to when I need to escape the kids!). And the bedroom is a shared area too: my husband’s and my clothes and books vying for space; my side permanently messier and more impassable than his. And just two tiny drawers with ‘personal things’, such as jewellery boxes, postcards or poems.

My husband, on the other hand, has a study. Not by virtue of the fact that he works in it (for he never does); but by virtue of the fact that his parents descended (unbidden) with all his things when we got married, and so his entire collected history of ‘stuff’ (of which there is a lot, as he is genetically predisposed to being a hoarder) is now in our house, occupying a space bigger than my children’s bedrooms. It is very much ‘his space’, where he spends much of his time, surrounded by his things. And so I started to think…..what about my space? What about a space for me?

I suspect this train of thought has its origins in the fact that I have been exploring the contents of our loft and some of the things that I brought to our house when we got married. I had almost forgotten it was there, but I recently realised when looking around our house that I could see nothing from before the time I got married. Part of what I am trying to do through therapy is to explore my past, to try and understand it better, and to reconnect with parts of myself that I effectively buried. I buried them because I felt that reinvention and becoming someone completely different, was the only way to avoid the pain and the tumultuous nature of my late teens and early twenties. And it worked, for a while. For quite a long while. But the arrival of children, as well as being a major life change in itself, is guaranteed to make you think about what you were like as a child, and it is unavoidable that you will start to reconnect – both in pleasant and far less pleasant ways – with the person you were then, and with the experiences that you had.

Perhaps it was the rediscovery of these items from my past, and their location – out of sight, out of mind – that prompted me to think about the lack of a space within my house, that I truly feel is my own. A space for my things, my memories, and my thoughts. The room in my therapist’s house where we have sessions is full of knick-knacks, books, postcards – most of which I suspect carry significance for her, and remind her of people or places. That is the sort of space I used to have when I was growing up, and at university. But I lost that when I started to share the space with somebody else, and I lost it even more so in the chaos that became our house and lifestyle, when the children came along. And along with the space, I think I also lost a sense of myself.

And so it was with these thoughts in mind that I was absolutely staggered when I opened a parcel that arrived for me today, and found this inside:

room of my ownI have no idea how to explain a coincidence like that – we will all have our own explanations, and maybe it doesn’t need one. After all, unless we are to say that there is no such thing as coincidence, the word was presumably invented for occurrences such as this. But message from the universe or not, I think this has given me the conviction that I should try to make a change; that I should try to create a space of my own, though I am not sure how. It will probably involve a difficult conversation with my husband – but I want to have it, because all of a sudden I feel a tremendous urge to create a space for myself in which I feel special. I do not have that at the moment. Sometimes, in therapy, I feel special; but although the space is emotionally ‘my space’, it is not physically ‘my space’. It is not where I live, much as I would like to.

So, thank you, universe, or happenstance, or whatever you want to call it. Though in actual fact, the real thanks must go to Penguin Random House UK and Mind the Mental Health Charity for the box of goodies that included this mug; the box being a runners up prize for the 2015 Mind Creative Writing Competition – more about that, shortly! I was incredibly grateful for the recognition of my entry – but now I am just as grateful for the timing, and the inspiration, of this part of the prize. With her title ‘A room of one’s own’, Virginia Woolf was referring, at least in part, to her own desire for artistic liberty and creative license. It may have taken a mug to make me see it – but I am grateful for the prompt to try and create a space where I will have the license to express who I am, and to rediscover it anew.



Two sessions become three – changing gear in therapy

I remember a friend telling me years ago how much it annoyed her when people regarded therapy as a bit of ‘tea and sympathy’, and had little appreciation of the immense effort of mind, body and soul that it takes to do therapy, and to keep going. I still find myself a little shocked and irritated on the odd occasion when my husband almost seems to put therapy on a par with ‘a night out’, or implies that it is fun or enjoyable. It can be fun, and it’s true that I look forward to going. But as with the ‘tea and sympathy’ remark, I think his words betray a deep lack of understanding (which to be fair, I have felt unable or unwilling to address) of how gruelling that therapy hour can be, and how much hard work is involved.

My friend’s descriptions, and the short courses of CBT I had had in the past, meant that when I started psychotherapy in 2013, I knew that I wasn’t in for a walk in the park and that there was a long, tough road ahead. But I still had no idea how the open-ended ‘talking cure’ actually worked –how long the process could be or how intense and all-consuming it could become. I remember reading ‘Get me out of here: My recovery from Borderline Personality Disorder’ by Rachel Reiland, just after receiving my diagnosis in early 2013, and wondering how on earth anyone could have three psychotherapy sessions a week. Surely no one but those in the worst difficulties imaginable (and I have no idea who I thought those individuals might be) would need three sessions a week!

And yet here I am, recently having moved from two to three sessions per week of psychoanalytic psychotherapy. I have joked with myself that this ‘worrying trend’ will not continue: in my first year with my current therapist I had one session a week; in my second year I had two; and now, in my third, I am up to three. Unlike the move from one to two sessions, this one was suggested by me, and the decision felt nowhere near as obvious. It was patently clear after a few months with my therapist, that one session a week was not enough – the gap between sessions was simply too long and too disruptive to the work, which felt very unconnected from week to week. Two sessions worked much better and my second year in therapy was a revelation, in so many ways.

Nervous though I still was of change, when something is working and is productive, you end up wanting more – or at least, I did. It felt as though we had a huge amount to cover; my two sessions were quite close together and the long gap over the weekend felt very hard to get through; my trust had deepened, the relationship had become stronger, and it felt as though we were making really valuable progress. All of which prompted me to make the suggestion of a third session, in the full knowledge that what might actually lie behind the request, might simply be my intense attachment to my therapist and the desire to see her for an extra hour a week. Because when it comes to my emotional connection to her, any amount of time with her, would never be long enough.

As soon as the suggestion went from being just a possibility to being an agreed upon course of action, I started to get cold feet. It wasn’t about the time constraints or the finances, all of which had taken a lot of thought and working out; it was about the feelings that suddenly arose in me in connection with that ‘extra session’. It very much started to feel like an ‘extra’ – like an unnecessary indulgence. I didn’t really need it; there were so many others who were ‘worse off’; it didn’t feel right that I should give the impression things were ‘that bad’ that I needed three sessions of therapy a week. We trialled a third session a couple of times over the summer and each time, as I approached my therapist’s front door, I had a huge sense of not being worthy of that extra time; a feeling that I really shouldn’t be there, and that I wasn’t really wanted. Once I was in session I felt as though I was depriving potential clients of a valuable morning slot; and that I was depriving her of an interesting new client. Instead, she had to put up with ‘more of the same’ from me. I was afraid of her getting bored, and of her getting resentful. I was afraid that as she hadn’t suggested it herself, that she didn’t really think that I should have a third session.

I brought those feelings up with her – it was hard to avoid, as they left me in tears right at the start of those trial sessions. We talked about where those feelings might have come from, and why I felt that my needs were less important than those of other ‘potential clients’; and about why I often felt as though I ‘forced myself’ upon people and that my presence was unwanted. She told me that there was not another client waiting for that slot; that it was free, that she had genuinely offered it, and that I should accept what it was that I wanted and was being offered, without feeling bad about it, or giving myself a hard time. Thinking about it now, perhaps this was another example of my putting a course of action into a ‘moral category’ where it did not belong (as described in my recent post ‘Staying connected to my therapist – and trying to be kind to myself‘). This allowed me to ‘legitimately’ beat myself up about the decision I had made and even gave grounds for backtracking upon it, both of which were easier options than dealing head-on with my feelings of being unwanted.

I remember from my early reading on psychotherapy, being struck by the idea that a client’s feelings about the practical arrangements governing therapy – time, place, payment – can often provide valuable therapeutic material. I have certainly noticed how the practical differences in my third session have triggered feelings that were not as present before. My other two sessions are at the end of a day: I turn up having had a busy time at work, with my ‘work persona’ still in place. That persona takes a little time to fall away, and when I get home it doesn’t have to be ‘put on’ again; I can process therapy, and then go to bed. My therapist too, can put her ‘work self’ aside once she has seen me on those days.

In contrast, my third session is at the start of the working day for both of us – following a spare hour or so afterwards in which to ‘process’, I have to get to work and be productive, however challenging or distressing that session might have been. And my therapist has other clients to see. Which, I am slightly ashamed to say, has given rise to strong feelings of ‘sibling rivalry’ with regards to her other clients. I have felt distress and resentment after that third session: because while I struggle to focus and to put aside my post-therapy feelings, and while I feel very alone with those emotions; she ‘gets on with her day’ and not just that – at some point, even if I am still in her thoughts, she has to physically evict me from them, in order to ensure that her focus is completely and utterly on someone else. I always knew, of course, that that is what she does for every client – and I am grateful for it, because she does it for me, too. But it feels completely different when you know that that eviction will be happening imminently, and you start to imagine the faces and the stories of those who are responsible for it. It has been another illustration of the lesson that, just as with a mother’s care and attention, hers isn’t finite and carved up into an increasingly smaller number of slices, depending on the number of clients she sees. Her other clients aren’t a threat to me – however impossible it can feel to accept that truth.

Having said all of that, and difficult though it still feels to accept that I have a right to that third session, I think that it is already proving helpful, and that in itself is frightening. Frightening, because if therapy progresses more quickly, the end of therapy will come sooner and that is an eventuality that I still cannot bear to think about. Twice now, that extra session has allowed a topic that came into play at the start of the week, to conclude or resolve in a way that simply would not have been possible in just two sessions. I asked my therapist what would have happened if we hadn’t had that third session, to which she replied: “It would have taken longer”. But how much longer, I wonder? It’s not simply that the discussion would have been postponed until the following week. Depending on what else happened during the gap over the weekend; how my thoughts or feelings changed; and how long it took to ‘peel back’ the layers of the working day and my working self – it might have been quite some time before we reached the same point. The third session follows quickly on from the second, and no time is wasted ‘changing gear’ from the day – it feels as though my emotions are more readily accessible. I think that, as well as the additional time, makes it possible to get to the heart of things and to start challenging and changing, much more quickly.

Changing gear in therapy is always difficult, and that third session has really brought home to me again, how emotionally and physically exhausting therapy can be. That gruelling hour I referred to at the start of this post can leave me feeling wiped out for days, and it’s also having a temporary impact on the way I’m processing therapy, and how this comes out in my writing. There was a similar effect last year – looking back, I wrote slightly fewer posts in September 2014 as I adjusted to the move from one to two sessions a week. Right now, I cannot even begin to see how to write about some of things I have been exploring in therapy over the last few weeks. As my therapist has said, a number of markers have been put down – issues which are not ‘done with’, but which have been brought to a helpful conclusion for now, to be visited again later. And when that happened I felt I really needed to take a breath – to leave the subject while it either lies dormant for a while or is worked on subconsciously. In the past, the material of therapy used to occupy a very large part of my thinking space in between sessions, and that came out in my blog posts which themselves were part of the processing. Over the last couple of weeks I have hardly thought about the material of therapy in between sessions, and I haven’t yet felt able to write about it.

I know that that will change – and there is so much I eventually want and need to write about, that has happened over the last few weeks. Some very important work has been done and I have come to a number of valuable realisations. I feel as though I have crested wave after wave of a therapy storm, and those waves are still coming. In the meantime, for those who may not have experienced therapy, but who want to know a little of what that can feel like, I can do no better than refer you to a couple of excellent posts by psychotherapists who, having been in both the client’s and the therapist’s chair, can attest to the fact that what it takes to weather that storm and to stick it out, is courage – with not a cup of tea in sight, for it wouldn’t survive those rolling seas. And as is beautifully described in this post by Dr Gerald Stein, what you reap is what you sow – therapy doesn’t just take courage, it fosters it. It enables you not just to take the road less traveled, but eventually to be the road less traveled – a more authentic version of yourself.


A different kind of inner view: World Mental Health Day

I’m not sure whether it’s ‘the done thing’ to reblog one’s own post!I wrote this for World Mental Health Day last year, but these words from the Missy Higgins song ‘Nightminds’ were in my thoughts again today, and so I really wanted to share the post again.

I think these lyrics are very powerful, and what was in my mind as I was writing the post last year was not just a hope that compassion, acceptance and understanding about mental illness will continue to increase, at an ever faster pace; but a thankfulness for this online community where we share so much of ourselves with each other and try to shine a light into each others’ dark times. I believe that the support and acceptance we find here can make it easier for us to engage the ‘real world’ in a conversation about mental health, and to risk being seen as a ‘whole person’, mental health difficulties and all. That has certainly been my experience, and I hope it can be yours too….

Life in a Bind - BPD and me

Nightminds final

In some parts of the world, 10 October – World Mental Health Day – is already over. In other parts of the world, the day is only just gathering momentum. But for as many as 450 million people around the world, it will be mental health day again tomorrow. And the next day. And the next.

For those 450 million people, today’s spotlight on mental health hasn’t made their darkness any lighter. Their hope is that it’s made the depth of that darkness more visible; its character more evident; its blackness more tangible; its presence more acceptable.

The world is changing  – but slowly. Stigma and ignorance are gradually being chipped away by greater knowledge and understanding – but will they be eradicated? Maybe not in our lifetime. And maybe not in the lifetime, gone too soon, of those 1 million people every year, who let go of the ledge…

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How therapy is helping my recovery from BPD

I was thrilled and honoured to have a post published by last week, a site devoted to helping people get better both in mind and in body, by connecting them with the most appropriate individuals for them. The site includes information and advice about all aspects of health and wellbeing, and contains articles from experts such as counsellors and psychotherapists, as well as real-life stories from those, like me, who wanted to share their experiences.

A key, innovative part of the site is its therapist directory, which can link individuals with the most appropriate therapist for them. In addition to the directory itself, the site contains stories of the experiences of those in therapy, as well as incredibly helpful descriptions of lots of different types of therapy, from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, to Psychodynamic Psychotherapy – to name but a few! I had always struggled to find clear and succinct descriptions of the various types of therapy available, and it’s great to find this information in one place, as this enables an easy comparison of the similarities and differences between them. Though as the website itself says: “The most important factor when choosing a therapist or an analyst is not the model of therapy so much as the practitioner him or herself. Therapy’s effectiveness is in the common factors that all the talking therapies have, a safe space to talk and be, and your relationship with your therapist”.

The post that I wrote – which is called ‘Therapy helped me to see the ways in which I really see myself‘ – describes my experience of therapy and why it has been (and continues to be) so essential in helping me to recover from Borderline Personality Disorder.


Dignity in mental health – and what that means for attitudes to recovery

The theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day on 10 October, is ‘Dignity in Mental Health’. According to the Royal College of Nursing’s (RCN) definition of ‘dignity’:

Dignity is concerned with how people feel, think and behave in relation to the worth or value of themselves and others. To treat someone with dignity is to treat them as being of worth, in a way that is respectful of them as valued individuals.

One of the ways in which those with mental illness are frequently treated with less dignity than those with ‘more obvious’ or ‘physical’ illnesses – though I think the distinction can be misleading – is the way in which recovery is viewed. People tend to view physical illness as something outside a person’s control, to the extent that they cannot simply ‘will‘ the condition away, or spontaneously decide to get better. One tends to assume that a physical illness leads to symptoms which may make it difficult to do certain things, and it would be unreasonable to expect someone to do them (for example, to walk with a broken leg), until they had recovered sufficiently. If someone has a physical illness, unless that illness is terminal, one is naturally optimistic and hopeful of recovery. There is an expectation, even, of recovery – where this doesn’t necessarily mean a complete eradication of symptoms or of a condition, but a restored ability to live a full and meaningful life. Recovery is possible; it is to be expected; and it is probably going to take time and some sort of intervention over and above simply ‘willing it’ to happen.

In contrast, people’s views of recovery from mental illness are sometimes polarized between two extremes. On the one hand, there is the view (rarely stated explicitly, but often implied by well-meaning but nevertheless ill-thought-out words or actions), that someone can ‘just decide’ to get better. That, as mental illness is ‘all in the mind’, if you try hard enough to really galvanize your thoughts, feelings, willpower and strength, all your difficulties will melt away. And on the other hand there is the view (also rarely stated explicitly anymore, but still hanging around from an earlier age), that if you have a mental illness there is something fundamentally wrong with you, and you are ‘doomed for life’, with no hope of recovery and no possibility of a fulfilling or mostly symptom-free existence.

I don’t want to deny that recovery from a mental health condition may mean something slightly different to recovery from many physical illnesses. It may be difficult to define, for example, when someone has ‘recovered’: is it when they no longer meet the diagnostic criteria for a particular condition; or when they no longer need medication or therapy; or when they simply feel well enough, in themselves? It’s also true to say that even when recovered, someone with a mental health difficulty may continue to be susceptible to ‘relapses’, for example during periods of great stress or change. However, although some mental health conditions (but not as many as you might think) may be life-long in that sense, we need to careful that we don’t give the impression that a diagnosis is a life-sentence: not just for the sake of the person being diagnosed, but so that we can start to enculturate ourselves in a way of thinking which aligns our attitudes towards recovery from a mental health condition, much more with our attitudes towards recovery from a physical condition. Recovery is possible; it is to be expected; and it is probably going to take time and some sort of intervention over and above simply ‘willing it’ to happen.

It is important to remember this, too: when people do not recover from a mental health condition, or take some time to recover – they are not suffering from a lack of will, or emotional weakness, or a character flaw, anymore than someone whose physical recovery is impeded by a vulnerable immune system, for example, is suffering from those things. True, some people choose not to take the help available to them, or may choose to continue in behaviours which will lead to a deterioration in their health – but this is true of some with a physical condition, just as it is of some with a mental health condition.

It does not accord someone dignity, to treat them as if they are perpetuating their own misery through choice (or rather by not making a choice to get better). Neither does it accord them dignity to assume that they have no choice but to continue in that state for the rest of their lives. That is a position which robs them of one of life’s essentials – hope. When life seems very bleak, reinforcing the possibility of a life worth living is part and parcel of treating someone as being of worth, and of showing them how much they are valued. To quote from the RCN’s definition of dignity again: “When dignity is present people feel in control“. I hope that on this World Mental Health Day, we can start to think about recovery from mental illness in a way that does not make those with a mental health condition feel helpless: either because they are expected to ‘will away’ their difficulties but cannot; or because they have been made to feel that no change is possible. Instead, I hope that we can try and dignify individuals’ daily struggles with their own minds and bodies, with a response that conveys compassion, understanding, support – and every expectation of recovery and the ability to fully embrace life.


Memory Monday – “Depression is like….struggling to breathe”

I haven’t done a ‘Memory Monday’ post for a while – in which I re-share an earlier post of mine which is particularly significant or appropriate at this time. However, in the lead-up to World Mental Health Day on Saturday 10 October, I wanted to re-share a guest post I wrote for Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers back in February. The post was about the following image, which Fiona Kennedy (author of Sunny Spells and Scattered Showers) shared on her blog:

Though I have seen a number of images or cartoons on a similar theme (comparing ‘physical’ and mental illness), this one struck me immediately, and more forcefully than those others. I still find it incredibly powerful, and if you do too, here’s some reasons why I think that might be – do let me know if you agree!





Staying connected to my therapist – and trying to be kind to myself

I drove past the house of Jane (my ex-therapist) again last week. It was only a very short detour this time, as I happened to be in the neighbourhood. It was the first time I had driven past since writing ‘Have you googled your therapist?’ and the difference, on this occasion, was that it was the first time I didn’t feel shame or fear at doing so. I didn’t feel I was doing something wrong – and although I think I was still nervous that she might see me, the thought didn’t worry me quite so much.

This happened only a couple of days after I received an email from someone who had read my blog and was wondering whether to tell her therapist about how attached she felt to him, and of how she ‘stalked him online’ (her words). Her email resonated so much with the feelings of guilt I used to experience over such ‘stalking’, and it brought home to me how much had changed over the last few months, in how I view this subject. And that change is due entirely to the way in my therapist has responded, and the conversations we have had about it.

On every occasion on which I have mentioned trying to get close to her outside of session (whether online, or in terms of physical distance), her response has surprised and amazed me. Take a couple of weeks ago, for example, when I told her that in the middle of our summer therapy break, on the day that I knew she was going on holiday, I happened to drive very close to her house and had an enormous urge to turn off the main road and drive right past it. But I didn’t. And instead of saying ‘well done for resisting the urge and not driving past’ (which was the sort of response I was expecting), she implied that it would have been fine, and perfectly reasonable, had I done so. I was completely taken aback and wasn’t sure what to say, until ‘you’re amazing’ slipped out, because that was exactly how I felt.

She had responded in a very similar way when I told her, as few months ago, that I had spent the day with my children in the playground and by the river near her house. I walked them to within fifty metres or so of her house, and then turned back. Her response was to call me ‘creative’ – I had found a way not just of spending special time with the kids, but of bridging the gap between sessions and continuing to feel connected to her. Far from commenting on or being displeased about how close I’d come to her house, she remarked on the fact that I hadn’t closed the gap all the way and walked right past her front door. In her mind, it showed that I was learning to tolerate some distance and I was becoming more able to bridge that gap myself, while still keeping her real.

Her understanding and her tolerance might seem extraordinary (they certainly did to me), but I think it’s easy to forget that not only have our therapists worked with many clients (who no doubt have had similar feelings), they have also been clients themselves. They may well have experienced the same feelings, and acted in similar ways. And so perhaps they don’t feel threatened by our behaviour (as we imagine they may do) and perhaps they understand it better than we think. Although she didn’t tell me of her own experiences, my therapist did mention that she had once had a colleague (another therapist) who took a certain route to get to town in order to drive past her own counsellor’s house on a regular basis. It was a huge relief to hear that – and suddenly I felt as if my behaviour was not so unusual or so unacceptable after all.

Having been clients themselves, our therapists hopefully also understand the process by which dependence and attachment and a need for the therapist’s physical presence, turn, over time, into greater independence and the ability to ‘internalise’ the therapist and carry them within, even when they are not present. This, as I understand it, is where my therapy will eventually lead me; up to the point where I have internalised my therapist and the process sufficiently, that I will be equipped to manage on my own. However, she has pointed out that until this happens, therapy (and the therapist) are strongly tied to the tangible factors that surround them. And so we ‘place’ the therapist in a particular location in which they exist powerfully, with their reality diminishing the further we get from that point. We associate therapy with the room in which it happens; with the objects in that room, the colour of the walls, or the view outside the window. And if any of those things changes it can be incredibly unsettling, even if our therapist is still there, because the person and the process are so bound up in our minds with one particular set of co-ordinates in three-dimensional space. And so it’s natural, when wanting to feel close to our therapists, that we seek out the place where they feel most real.

I found that hearing it explained in this way, went a long way towards enabling my feelings of guilt and shame to melt away. And I think very similar arguments can be applied to trying to stay connected to one’s therapist via ‘virtual’ means as well. In the months after I stopped seeing Jane, I used to find that googling her and seeing her name in print was immensely important in keeping her alive in my mind, in what I had originally assumed was a gap of few months until I could return to therapy with her again.

“But” – you might respond – “there is a big difference between something being understandable and it being right. It feels wrong to violate someone’s privacy in that way – whether that happens in the ‘real world’ or online”. It’s why my discussions with my therapist on this topic have felt so much like ‘confessions’ – I felt I had ‘morally transgressed’; that I had ‘sinned against her’. But in response to this, my therapist made a very valuable observation which really struck home and provided a great deal of food for thought. She said that it was almost as though I was placing something ‘out of bounds’ – even though it wasn’t – in order to recreate an old dynamic in which I wanted desperately to reach out for something that was inaccessible or forbidden. By making something forbidden that was not in fact so, I was guaranteeing that if I did reach out for it, I would be hurt by the burden of guilt and self-reproach that I would then feel.

This made immediate sense – but why would I recreate such a situation, and why would I invent a moral imperative for myself that I then felt bound to transgress? I realised that the guilt and shame I felt was not so much about driving past my therapist’s house, or googling her; but about the overwhelming desire to be close, which itself led to those behaviours. In many ways, it is easier to deal with punishing ourselves for violating someone else’s boundary (as we see it) than to deal with the neediness, dependence and desire for connection that we may feel for our therapists. Perhaps there is even a sense in which that neediness feels self-violating – it impinges on our solitariness and the sense that we should manage life alone, without the fear of being hurt. It seems easier to try and replace that sense of self-violation (which we may feel we have no defences against, or any idea how to handle) with the more familiar sense of ‘doing the wrong thing’. It makes the problem an external one – we have defined the line that has been crossed; and there is a difficult but obvious solution – confession and the hoped for absolution.

I don’t fully understand this yet – and I’m not sure what exactly the dynamic is that I am recreating from my past. However, this is one area in which I am incredibly grateful to my therapist for helping me to see things in a way which enables me to be kinder to myself. The challenge for me now, I think, is to apply this to other areas of my life. I suspect that there are a number of ways in which I needlessly place things ‘out of bounds’ or in some sort of ‘moral category’, which just enables me to criticize or punish myself if I ‘reach for things I shouldn’t’ or act in ways I perceive as ‘wrong’. I also suspect there are a number of circumstances in which my feelings (for example, shame or anger) relate to the underlying motivations driving my actions, rather than to the actions themselves. But if there is one thing that continues to inspire me to try and be kind to myself, it is her own kindness to me, and her openness to the ways in which I express my needs and my desire to stay connected. And for that, I will always be grateful.