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


Wants, needs, and reaching out – some more lessons from therapy

My eldest child sobbed in front of me, desperate for something I was refusing to give him. He felt an overwhelming need, and I wasn’t meeting it. Worse than that, he couldn’t understand why. He kept saying ‘why, mummy, why?’. And all I could do was repeat what now felt like a stupid and arbitrary rule of behaviour that had served its purpose a couple of years ago, but now felt cruel and out of place. And yet I felt trapped by it, and the more I said ‘no’, the more entrenched that ‘no’ became, and I felt at the same time both captive and dictator – bound by the rule, but exercising it on a whim. It was hurting him, and it was hurting me, and I felt powerless to kneel down, hug him, and end the power struggle we were caught up in.


As I sat opposite my therapist, in tears of desperation, I remembered that power struggle and felt as though I was trapped in it again, only on the other side. I felt an immense need for her to reach out to me, and I simply could not understand why she wouldn’t. It felt as though she was holding back; as if I was subject to her whim and at the mercy of whether or not she chose to respond to my needs. She seemed cruel; and I felt I was waiting, helplessly, for any words of comfort or encouragement that might come my way.

Of course, they did come my way; they had come. They had come during previous sessions and in the form of emails in between sessions. They had come in response to my own words, but did that make them any less an act of ‘reaching out’? They had come in the form of echoing others’ comforting words – but I wanted her words instead. When I couldn’t see a single positive thing about myself, I wanted to hear her tell me what she saw. And that ‘want’ became a feeling which felt like a ‘need’, and that need felt as though it had an inalienable right to be met. Who could refuse to meet the need of a seeming-child in distress? Who apart from someone cruel; or someone incapable, as I had been, of escaping the patterns of their own past, in order to respond differently in the present? I had written to her in an email a few days before: “You hold me in mind and you were really there for me tonight – but I still just want you to reach out to me.


For two years, we slowly built a raft together. It was painstaking work. In the early days we would sometimes come back to find that the sea had washed our pile of wood away, or the wind had smashed the tiny platform against the rocks. Later on, we found that some of the rope we used to bind the branches would come undone, and we would spend hours fastening them together again. Or, frustrated at the slow progress we appeared to be making, I would take up the axe and swing it at the raft – afterwards checking frantically for serious cracks and breaks, while you tried to tell me that it would take more than that to render our work unseaworthy.

Sometimes we laughed while we worked; sometimes we cried – or rather, I cried. Hot heavy tears falling onto the raft we were building, until it seemed that those tears were preserving it, and preparing it for its time at sea. We worked in the thankless heat, and in the pouring rain, and we learned that we could survive both, and so could our raft. We discovered new techniques for binding the branches together; with your help I learned how to tie knots more firmly, and how to make repairs much faster. Sometimes when I became frustrated and picked up the axe to swing it, I would catch your eye, eyebrow raised as if asking ‘why?’, and I would pause. At that point, we might take a walk along the beach together; or I might simply drop the axe. More rarely I might decide to swing it anyway – more confident, now, in the strength of the raft, than nervous about my own ability to destroy it.

And then one day I thought I might take it out to sea just for a while, but not too far from shore. You stood watching and smiling as I enjoyed the sunshine on my face. But then, all too quickly, the clouds rolled in and the wind whipped up. The sky turned dark, and I was scared, and before I knew what was happening I found myself in the water.

I shouted to you on the shore, a child’s inflatable life-ring by your side: ‘throw me the life-ring – pull me in to shore!‘. You called out: ‘hold on to the raft!‘. I felt heavy, starting to sink – why couldn’t you see that I needed the ring? I floundered wildly, shouting again: ‘why are you letting me drown? I can’t see the raft, I need the ring –  just reach out and throw me the ring!‘. You picked up a megaphone, your voice reaching out across the water: ‘the ring will not fit, it is not for you; but the raft is there, turn around and you will see it; you can wait out this storm – just hold on to the raft that we built“.


It was hard to hear her say that whatever she did it would never be enough. However many sessions we had, however many emails in between times – I would never feel that it was enough. It was hard to hear her say that I was an adult, even when I felt like a child. That I had the ability to think about that feeling of ‘need’ and to try and understand it; and perhaps even to recognise that it may not represent a ‘need’, though it may represent a ‘want’. It was hard to hear her say that my sense of her holding back and of me being ‘at her mercy’, were about feeling a lack of control over others’ actions and reactions. What I perceived as ‘being dependent on the whim of others’, was simply me coming up against the self-determination and spontaneity of other human beings, separate to me. She was separate, and not an extension of me.

It was hard to hear her say those things, and hard to know that she was right. Hard to think that much as I value even the smallest gesture on her part, part of me always wants more. Hard to realise that many of these lessons are lessons I thought that I had already learned. And yet……I would risk drowning, it seems, for the sake of her throwing out a life-line that could not really hold me, rather than depending on what I know we’ve built together. The big question, it seems to me, is WHY……

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Feeling grateful

For various reasons I have been really anxious about this week, for quite some time. The weekend before last was very similar in many ways to the one I wrote about in my post ‘Why taking a pledge to talk about suicide, can be so powerful‘. I was feeling utterly worthless, trapped, and didn’t want to carry on any longer. Once again, I ended up crying through the service at church on Sunday and then dissolving in an even bigger heap in the arms of a friend at the end of the service, and telling her how much I wanted to die. At the same time, work became particularly stressful, and therapy also hit one of those frustratingly familiar and painfully gut-wrenching brick walls where I felt stuck and very very alone. At that stage, when I looked ahead to this week, it all seemed very very scary. Knowing that there would be a number of triggers this week that could potentially make things worse, and knowing how isolated and desperate I was already feeling, I felt more than a little unsafe.

And so it’s very strange to be sitting here now, in a rather different frame of mind. And it was particularly strange to find myself on Sunday, in contrast to the weekend before, making a mental list of people and things that I was grateful for. I remember the difficult feelings that were triggered when ‘100 Happy Days’ became the latest craze on Facebook last year, and my newsfeed was filled up daily with things that my friends were thankful for. Much like the situation described in my post ‘Mental health and the holidays’, I was glad that they had things they were grateful for, but at the same time I was desperately sad and also angry; not just because of the ways in which I was struggling, but also at the fact that those very struggles lessened my ability to even be able to see or appreciate any of the things I might otherwise feel thankful for. And so prior to Sunday, I think it was a long time since I had managed to feel grateful for a few small things, without that gratefulness being mixed either with feelings of being ‘undeserving’ or feelings of an impending loss (that whatever it was I was grateful for, would be taken away).

And so with a few potential triggers still to come this week, I just wanted to make a small list of some of those people who I have felt particularly grateful for recently. They were all I think, responsible for the fact that I feel so differently now, to the way I imagined last week that I would be feeling. They are:

  • the person whose random act of kindness on ‘World Kindness Day’ has stayed with me, and still keeps me feeling warm
  • the friend who asks me how I really am when I say that I’m okay
  • the person who last week gave me their time when they had other things to do, and told me it was the most important thing they would do that day
  • the friend who held me when I thought nothing of myself, and told me I was special
  • the blogger who was a friend, who became a friend who is a blogger, and whose words were even more up-building when spoken across a coffee table than across the internet
  • my therapist who encourages me to stand up for myself and not to let my self-worth be defined by others. Ultimately, her words helped me to take a small step over the weekend which made a big difference. A small dose of self-worth coupled with a little kindness and affection from others, can go a very, very, long way.

I want to thank them all and to let them know they helped me to feel better, and they helped me to feel grateful. In essence, they helped me to feel as though I matter – and that’s a million miles away from where I was just a few days ago.






It feels like time running out

A few weeks ago, Sarah Hughes @donteducateblog tweeted the link to the video of Jamie Lawson’s ‘Wasn’t expecting that’. At that stage, I hadn’t come across the song at all, although it was soon to top the UK charts. I subsequently heard it on the radio a number of times, but am grateful for having been pointed to the video, which I almost certainly would not have looked for, otherwise.

As the tweet had indicated it would be, I found it incredibly moving and ended up watching it a number of times, in tears. The song is a beautiful but tragic (in an all-too-common way) love story of a couple who meet young, get married, have children, and lead a fulfilling life together, which is cut short by cancer. The video tells the story in reverse order to the lyrics, starting with the couple in late middle-age, and working back to their meeting as youngsters. At the end, and in accordance with the lyrics of ‘Wasn’t expecting that’, the video cuts to the image of a wife and mother taking her last breath, caught by a relapse despite an earlier, but temporary reprieve. It’s only as you hear the lyrics unfold that you realise what it taking place in the video – you recognise the words that you have already heard, enacted in the scenes that are taking place.

Cancer is in my family – as it is in everyone’s – and I first came across it at a fairly young age. I lost close relatives and I was in close proximity during the progression of the illness. The video was a hard watch because it triggered memories. But more than that, it was a hard watch because it triggered fears about the future. It wasn’t so much my relatives that I saw in that dying wife and mother, but myself.

Growing up, I had an intense fear of death and the paraphernalia of death. I found it deeply uncomfortable being around serious illness; I found it distressing visiting family gravesides and would do almost anything to avoid it. Being in the rooms of those who had died left me feeling literally ‘haunted’ by their presence. And somewhere along the way, I picked up and internalised an unwavering belief that, like those who had gone before me, cancer would consume me and I would die young. I was often compared with one of my relatives who died in middle-age; somehow the genetic traits or accomplishments we shared because indicative of a common destiny, a shared manner of dying.

This has been very much on my mind lately. In the not-too-distant future I will entering a new decade. My therapist jokingly said that it ‘wasn’t too bad’ and that the decade after that was ‘the real killer’. I told her that her comment was unwittingly apt, because part of me firmly believes that I won’t make it beyond this next decade and into the one after. Entering a new decade feels like the start of a ten year countdown to the end of my life.

And neither is my belief completely without foundation. A few years ago, following discovery of a breast lump, I was told I had lobular neoplasia, the ‘polite’ name for lobular carcinoma in situ (LCIS), what some might call ‘Stage 0’ cancer, though some tend to argue that in the case of LCIS it shouldn’t technically be regarded as cancer at all. However, my chances of developing ‘actual’ breast cancer are now more like 1 in 3 or 1 in 4, and combined with other instances of breast cancer in the family, those are not the most promising odds. I feel as though I am playing a waiting game – waiting for Stage 0 to develop into Stage 1, or worse. According to my internalised timescale, I believe that that will happen at some point within the next decade. And yet, I am doing absolutely nothing to try and prevent it. My diet is appalling and I do virtually no exercise. Part of it is due, I think, to an inherently poor appreciation of risk. But I’m beginning to realise that it is also partly because I believe that whatever I do will make no difference – that this illness will kill me in the short or medium term, and there is no escaping that scenario.

I think that this belief is in large part responsible for an aspect of my mental health difficulties that has troubled me for a very long time, and which was present even during the period when my BPD symptoms were somewhat in remission. I get very anxious and distressed at the idea of ‘time running out’ and I am constantly worrying about ‘making the most of my time’. This anxiety is such a core part of the way that I am now, that every decision on how to spend my time involves an automatic calculation of whether I can ‘afford the time’ and how I will ‘make up for it’ , if necessary, at another point. A friend of mine realised suddenly when I described this to her a few months ago, that ‘this is why I never see you’! She was right – it took me two years to meet up with another close friend because it took that long to persuade myself that I could allow myself to take a day away from the children. In the few months before my second child was born, I became virtually house-bound when I wasn’t at work, because I wouldn’t let myself interact with anyone else in order to maximise the remaining one-on-one time I had left with my elder child. In addition, I always find the first few days of any holiday exceptionally stressful, until I reach the point where I feel I have ‘made some memories’ and made ‘good use of my time’.

These days, right in the midst of BPD, when I think about the possibility – in my mind, the certainty – of getting ill, I am petrified and appalled at the thought of having to go through that experience feeling as completely alone and isolated as I do now. I simply don’t feel capable of fighting serious physical and mental illness at the same time, whilst also in the midst of a relationship in serious trouble; and I would not want my children to watch me go through what I watched my own family experience. Though suicidal ideation is something I experience on a fairly regular basis, I am afraid of having my ‘hand forced’ in that way – though I know that for as long as I breathe I have a choice, however difficult the choice to live may be. And I am afraid because sometimes it feels as though that choice will present itself not even in ten years, or five years, but in ten months, or five months, or five weeks, or tomorrow. However much my heart breaks when I think about the fact that one day therapy will end and I will lose my therapist, at the same time part of me believes that she will lose me first.

To the extent that my BPD allows -perhaps instead of being so focused on making memories, I should be more focused on one day being remembered. Because that would involve being really present and alive to someone else, in the moment, rather than living constantly in the shadow of the future, while trying to turn the present into a memorable past. And then, if and when something happens, I can say ‘I was so busy living, I wasn’t expecting that’. Rather than ‘I was so busy expecting that, I wasn’t really living’.



Who is that girl I see?

I have recently given in to letting my children play Christmas songs in the car, but before that, ‘Now Disney’ was frequently on repeat (though I banned disc 4, the Christmas album – I draw the line at cartoon characters singing Jingle Bells)! I remember the Disney songs of my own childhood, and I know tracks from the latest films, as my children are now old enough to enjoy the cinema. ‘Let it Go’ is still a firm favourite, but it took me a while to figure out what my children were doing, when they started singing the ‘Banana’ song from the Minions movie!

However, there are a couple of decades in between , where I have missed out on a swathe of wonderful Disney films and beautiful songs, which I am now gradually coming to know through my children’s music and DVDs. I have a soft-spot for ‘Tangled’, an interesting retelling of the Rapunzel story, with a wonderful soundtrack that is both moving and disturbing – for anyone who has experienced an intrusive, controlling or narcissistic mother, it is hard to listen to the reprise of ‘Mother knows best’ without feeling extremely uncomfortable.

But recently, I have been particularly struck by the words to ‘Reflection’, a song from the 1998 film ‘Mulan’. It was covered by Christina Aguilera, and it became her debut adult contemporary single. Though the lyrics are about questions of identity and acceptance for a young girl struggling to find her true self in a male dominated and culturally restrictive China of times past, they are in other ways universal, and they are certainly relevant to questions of identity and acceptance in mental health.

Although I am becoming more open about my mental health difficulties, I do still need to hide them from work and from family, and I often come up against an intense internal frustration at the fact that I am so routinely ‘in hiding’ and that in most contexts, I cannot be ‘seen’ and therefore accepted, for who I am. And that sense of lack of acceptance goes right back to before the development of my BPD, and to the feeling that I was expected by my parents to be a particular way, and that acceptance, therefore, was in some sense conditional, and that I had to hide a great deal about how I really thought and felt.

If you have not come across this song before, I hope it resonates with you, as it did with me. These verses, in particular, stand out for me:

“Look at me
You may think you see
Who I really am
But you’ll never know me
Every day
It’s as if I play a part
Now I see
If I wear a mask
I can fool the world
But I cannot fool my heart….

…..Who is that girl I see
Staring straight back at me?
Why is my reflection
Someone I don’t know?
Must I pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside? ….

…..Why must we all conceal
What we think, how we feel?
Must there be a secret me
I’m forced to hide?
I won’t pretend that I’m
Someone else for all time
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?
When will my reflection show
Who I am inside?”

[From ‘Reflection’ – written and produced by Wilder and Zippel, recorded by Christina Aguilera]


Reacting to responsibility – BPD and being an adult

A few weeks ago, on a Monday, I sent my therapist a brief email asking whether it would be okay to bring in some more photos to look at during one of our sessions that week. I had brought some in on the Friday before, and was keen to look through some others (of myself as a child) that I had recently found. However, as usual, I wanted to know what ‘the rules’ were – I wasn’t sure whether it was okay to bring in more photos, so soon after we had already spent time looking at some. It had been okay on one occasion – but what if it wasn’t okay again?

She replied very briefly, saying that we could talk about it in session, as she wasn’t quite sure why I was asking. My reaction, was, quite simply: “What the f**k”? Excuse my thinly disguised swearing – but its presence is as unavoidable as it was when it was going around my head almost constantly for the following twenty-four hours until my next session. I couldn’t believe her reply – and I was very angry. And behind the anger, though I couldn’t feel it for the red behind the eyes, was a great deal of hurt.

In my mind, it was a perfectly simple and straightforward question – why could she not just answer it? More importantly, why could she not just answer it, given the circumstances? I had had a very difficult weekend, and was still feeling vulnerable, having confided to her over email the details of some behaviour I was ashamed of. I was still feeling anxious about how she would view that behaviour, and in need of reassurance – how could she not realise that?

I was very much the angry and resentful teenager in my next session, and as usual it came out visually (in what I wore to session) perhaps even more than in my words. And just as I was taken by surprise by her comment, she was taken completely by surprise by my reaction and had no idea, initially, where it had come from. She had felt unsure why I thought I needed her permission to bring in some photos, particularly when it had clearly been okay the previous time we had looked at some. She also suspected that my desire to look at photos may have been a way of trying to ignore the events of the weekend, and jump right back in to where we had been before those events happened. And rather than begin that discussion over email, she suggested we talk about it during the next session.

Once the teenager had had her say, over the next couple of sessions we had some incredibly productive discussions both about my therapist’s email, and about the events of the previous weekend. It was one of those sequences of sessions that leaves you rather mind-blown, and which I have still not processed. It felt ‘so big’ that rather than letting it go round in my mind, or writing about it, I felt I had to put it ‘on ice’ for a while. The processing could occur subconsciously – but at that point I felt I needed a break, and to step back a bit. This is the first time I am coming back to just one small but important part of those discussions.

My therapist told me that given the series of emails we had had over the weekend, she believed I had thought through and at least partly rationalized the events of the weekend. What she had been trying to do with her reply was to challenge me to take my thinking further, and to consider for myself the reasons behind my question about the photos. She thought her email would encourage more thinking to take place. Instead, it shut thinking down all together. There was only one thought in my brain from that point on (yes, the WTF one), and my emotions (particularly anger and resentment) dominated completely.

I think it’s always difficult for a therapist to know who they are addressing at any one time. Is the adult or the child present? Or the teenager perhaps? And even if one appears to be dominant, how close to the surface is an ‘other’ lurking, waiting to be triggered? I’m not talking about distinct identities here, but about aspects of ourselves, and the experience that many people have, of feeling ‘different ages’ at different times in their therapy. I think my therapist thought that she was addressing ‘the adult’ in her email – and that I would respond as an adult to her encouragement to take responsibility for thinking through my motivations.

What I realised during that week, thanks to an insight that came from her, was that the requirement to be an adult and to behave like one, can in itself be very triggering for me. It can feel unfair, or like an imposition; like rejection or like a burden; like not being taken care of. It can make me feel resentful and angry; hurt and abandoned.

I think that the reason for this can best be described in an unfinished short story I wrote when I was a teenager, and which I  posted here a few weeks ago. I think it’s because I’m only now uncovering (or, given the feelings described in that story, perhaps acknowledging rather than uncovering), the resentment and anger I felt, and still feel, at having to behave in some respects like an adult, when I wasn’t one. When there were deaths in the family, the adults sought reassurance from me, not the other way around. They talked about it in my presence – but they didn’t talk to me, other than to criticise how unemotional I seemed in comparison with everyone else. But being openly emotional was not an option – it was clear that others found it hard enough dealing with their own feelings, and I knew from experience that my own unhappiness just made them more anxious. That, in turn, would have exacerbated my own distress. Even before I hit double figures in age I had decided that as far as possible, I was not going to show any negative emotion around my family – extending that even to positive emotion, came later.

This meant that experiences of death (not grief, because I wouldn’t allow myself to feel it); panic; fear of death and going mad; bullying; heartbreak; depression – were never shared with anyone as I was growing up. At the time it was ‘just the way it was’, though my short story, written when I was around seventeen, shows that at least part of me was in touch with how resentful I really felt about having to take responsibility for looking after others’ emotional well-being and also my own, well before I was technically ready.

Understanding where this resentment comes from – where it came from in my response to my therapist – is helpful. But the potential for growth – which I still haven’t come to grips with and fully thought through – is in trying to apply it outside the therapy room. How often, for example, could my reaction to my husband’s requests, be at least partly a function of being triggered in this way? How often could my resentment be about ‘having to be a grown-up’ and ‘having to take responsibility’, rather than about the specific thing that he is asking, or the way in which he is asking it? And what about interactions with close friends? How are they affected? The knowledge that for me, the very idea of an adult interaction may be associated with hurt and resentment, seems like a very valuable and transformative piece of information to have.

Transformative – in the long run. Events even over this last weekend have shown that I still have a very long way to go. But I’m holding onto this golden nugget of information until I feel strong enough to start to make a little better use of it. Unlike the Las Vegas casino of the same name, I am hoping It will pay out abundantly, at ever diminishing costs (of courage and emotional energy), the longer time goes on!


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Quick Recovery

I wanted to share this post, not only because it is a lovely moment of ‘progress’ for a blogger whose therapy journey and her insight into it, is interesting, moving and inspiring; but also because it is one of those posts that I relate to completely and which perfectly describes my own experience as well.

These moments of mini-rupture happen fairly frequently in my therapy, and my interpretation of them, my fears about them, and my reaction to them, are exactly as described here. A triggering comment from my therapist (one which, for example, I perceive as a criticism or as rejection), can have an instant effect on me and on the mood of the session. As described in this post, most often the situation arises in relation to boundaries of some kind, whether real or imagined. Almost invariably, these moments ‘freeze’ the session; however freely I may have been speaking beforehand, I feel myself instantly shutting down and ‘zoning out’ – withdrawing into my own bubble, with my pain. Either that, or I try and keep going but things get progressively worse as the feelings of rejection just keep mounting the more they are not addressed or brought out into the open.

It’s wonderful when, as happened here, I am able to work through it and turn it around, within the session itself. That definitely happens more than it used to – though there are still many times when ‘the freeze’ happens anyway, however much progress I think I may have made.

I think what’s important is to try and understand how and why we react as we do in these situations. The more we do that and the more frequently we can work through these moments ‘in real time’ in session, hopefully the less triggering these situations will become. We can then start to claw ourselves out of the vicious circle of perceived rejection and distancing, leading to us shutting down and distancing, leading to further feelings of abandonment.

Oh, and another aspect of this post that I related to – I too put my feet up on the chair during therapy, though not for the reason described in this blogger’s subsequent post!

Things I Learned In Therapy

During nearly every session with my therapist, I put my feet on the chair at one point or another. I either sit cross-legged, side sitting, or with one or both knees up to my chest. The first several times I did this, I’d put my feet down once I noticed I was doing it and apologize. Each time I did so, my therapist would respond by telling me it was okay.

I always loved that.

Today I came into session in a very light and jovial manner. I asked her if I could show her some photos. She said of course, so I pulled out my phone and knelt down in front of her (something I have never done before because I usually just hand her the phone) to show her some Halloween photos of my sister’s children and a funny picture of my classmate and I taken earlier in the week…

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Remembering Rivers

W.H.R.Rivers (Maull)” by w:Henry Maull – The Royal Society. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

On this Remembrance Sunday, I am remembering a man who was ahead of his time in the care and understanding of those with mental illness. W. H. R. Rivers was an anthropologist, neurologist, ethnologist and psychiatrist, known, amongst other things, for treating World War I soldiers suffering from shell-shock – what we would now call a form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Rivers’ war-time work at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Scotland, and his meeting with the poets Siegfried Sassoon (with whom he developed a life-long friendship) and Wilfred Owen, have been fictionalised in Pat Barker’s well-known and award-winning ‘Regeneration Trilogy’. But Dr Rivers stands out not because he had the good fortune to encounter and treat two of the greatest war poets that have ever lived:  but because he was a pioneer in his field (by applying psychoanalysis to soldiers suffering from neurosis as a result of war experiences); and because he defied the beliefs and treatments of his time. At a time when shell-shock was considered ‘not a real illness’, and the only ‘cure’ was electroschock therapy (described by another war poet, Ivor Gurney, in the post-war period – see my previous post ‘Strange Hells – Remembrance Sunday‘), he instead encouraged his patients to talk about their experiences and their emotions.

After the war, Rivers returned to Cambridge, where he had previously held a lectureship. He died on 4 June 1922, and his ashes now rest in the Ascension Parish Burial Ground in Cambridge.

As testament to his legacy of compassion and treating everyone as individuals, the author and poet Robert Graves (though not himself a ‘patient’) wrote after Rivers’ death of the peace and security he felt in Rivers’ rooms – a feeling many of those in a trusting therapeutic relationship, will know:

“….The ground held firmly; I was no more dumb.

For that was the place where I longed to be

And past all hope where the kind lamp shone

The carpet was holy that my feet were on….

…..The cushions were friendship and the chairs were love…”




Strange Hells – Remembrance Sunday

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) was an English composer and poet who fought in, and survived, the First World War. He wrote several hundred poems, songs and instrumental pieces, and is regarded as one of the foremost World War I poets. However, he was troubled by severe mood swings from his teenage years, and suffered his first breakdown in 1913. Another breakdown followed in 1918, a few months after his return from the Western Front. Although he continued to write poetry and music prolifically, his mental health continued to deteriorate and in 1922 his family had him declared insane. He spent the last fifteen years of his life in psychiatric hospitals and died in 1937 of tuberculosis, at the City of London Mental Hospital. Although for a number of years it was believed that Gurney suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, it is now believed that he had bipolar disorder. Recently it has been argued that despite the horror of combat, the discipline, comradeship and sense of belonging of the army, may have temporarily helped Gurney’s mental health.

Gurney served both on the Somme and at Passchendaele – two of the most infamous battlegrounds of WWI. In 1917 he wrote ‘Strange Hells’ – a beautiful, surprising poem. ‘There are strange hells within the minds war made‘, but at the same time, ‘not so often, not so humiliatingly afraid as one would have expected‘. Perhaps he’d known stranger and more frightening hells before he entered battle. He certainly did after battle. His poem ‘To God’ is  a heartbreaking cry for death in a situation that he felt was intolerable. If we read the last lines of the poem in isolation – ‘Not half can be written of cruelty of man, on man, not often such evil guessed as between man and man‘ – we might think they were describing his war experience. But they appear in the context of a poem about his experience of hospitalisation, in which he was ‘praying for death, death, death, and dreadful is the indrawing or out-breathing of breath‘. ‘And there is a dreadful hell within me‘.

Gurney’s description of his depression and longing for death will be familiar to many – I have never been an inpatient, but so many of the emotions in this poem are familiar to me, including the feeling of ‘crying and trembling in heart for death, and cannot get it‘.

On this Remembrance Sunday, I want to remember a man who knew first-hand both the hell of a wartime battlefield, and the hell of his own internal battles with mental illness. I hope these poems move you, as they did me.

strange hells Gurney


To God Gurney


I admit it – I need a rainbow butterfly unicorn kitten too

cat unicorn

Once again I appear to be behind the times – this picture has been spreading across the internet like wildfire for quite some time, but I only came across it recently. Apologies to whoever is responsible for the image, for the lack of attribution – I can’t find one anywhere!

The picture made me smile as soon as I saw it – and then I felt silly for smiling, as part of me thought it was quite plainly one of the most ridiculous pictures I had ever seen. And I had never quite understood what appeared to be the mental health world’s fascination with unicorns. (I make this gross generalization based on the fact that when I first started reading mental health blogs, I came across captioned images of unicorns on a very regular basis).

But the fact remains – I still smile every time I see this picture. It actually makes me happy to look at it. Maybe it’s just that I love kittens. To the extent that I can almost ignore the fact that this kitten has an odd sort of protrusion on its forehead. But in this context, even that seems apt and appears to have a place – if anything can be said to ‘have a place’ in this bizarre creation of ridiculous (some might take that literally) cuteness.

To be serious for a moment – if that is possible under the circumstances; this one picture brings together some powerful symbolism, and that, undoubtedly, is part of its appeal, particularly in relation to mental health. Depending on the context, rainbows symbolize hope and/or freedom; unicorns remind us of gentleness, innocence, mystery, beauty – or, indeed, of almost any positive virtue. They are a symbol of ‘the good’ – and at the same time their mythical and mystical nature is a representation of our longing for something perfect and unattainable. As for the butterfly – it is a powerful symbol of transformation, and in the mental health world it is also associated with recovery and self-care; the ‘butterfly project’, for example, aims to support and motivate individuals who wish to stop self-harming. As for the kitten – well, a kitten is a kitten. It’s adorable – who could resist? (I’m going to ignore the dream interpretation website I saw, that claimed that kittens are a symbol of sexual fantasies and irrational beliefs. If you start believing that the rainbow butterfly unicorn kitten is real, I will direct you to that website).

So, sometimes, it seems you really do need a rainbow butterfly unicorn kitten. Or, at least, I do. How did I never realize this before?!



Never enough? BPD and the need for connection

I have been reminded quite forcefully this week, of the fact that I have BPD. Not that it’s particularly easy to forget; but I think it’s fair to say that over the last year or so, the ‘label’ I clung onto so fiercely before (as without it I felt I lacked definition), has seemed a little less important. In therapy I feel I have moved away from trying to understand my ‘symptoms’, to trying to understand my own set of circumstances and past experiences, which are ultimately unique to me. Similarly, my blog posts have moved, I think, from being primarily about my experience of BPD, to being more about my experience of therapy and of life, of which BPD symptoms are a part.

But this week, I feel I am a walking example of a ‘textbook borderline’ – without meaning to cause offence, and in full recognition of the fact that generalisations are often not helpful. Though I know I have made progress in therapy, put me in particular situations and they are guaranteed, it seems, to provoke certain feelings and reactions within me which are par for the course for my ‘condition’. I believe in recovery – but more and more I’m coming to realise that it’s not about symptom elimination; but about managing symptoms and a gradual reduction in their intensity and duration. I think perhaps I will always have a propensity to react in certain ways – but perhaps in future those reactions will not be as painful or as long-lasting as they are now.

I hate the emotions that I am having. And I hate that they are happening to me. I hate feeling so incredibly needy, and I hate it even more when that neediness is directed at others apart from my therapist. For one thing, I cannot talk to those others about how I am feeling. For another, it feels like a betrayal of my therapist. In a painful double-bind, I am yearning to feel special to those others, and at the same time I yearn for my therapist to know how special she is to me. I have an urge to be mothered by those others – to be wrapped up in their arms. But I feel guilty because it is my therapist’s mothering touch that I am most desperate for, and it feels as though I am diminishing that desire by daring to feel it in relation to someone else.

What I suddenly realised this week, is that these emotions have hit me so forcefully not because they went away and have suddenly come back; but because for quite a long time now, they have been focused almost exclusively on my therapist, who has helped me to talk about them and work through them. But now they have spilled out, once again, onto others, and the ease with which that has happened, has shocked me. This week reminded me what a powerful trigger ‘confession’ can be – and that allowing myself to trust people and open up to them, can pull me into a powerful web of emotions. It can open up a ‘pit of need’ (as described in my post ‘BPD and emptiness‘) that feels utterly bottomless and futile. And because it feels so futile, my impulse is to do whatever I can to push it away. It’s been a long time since I deactivated my Facebook account in an attempt to pull away from interaction and to try and deny that sense of need – but I did it again this weekend.

The neediness and the desire for closeness are very painful, and they have been ever present during this last week. But at least I don’t feel as ashamed of those emotions, as I do of the ones that accompany them. I want to feel mothered; but I also want to feel special and unique. Which I can just about accept, were it not for the fact that this leads to a sense of ‘competition’ that feels completely wrong. In order to feel special and to be loved I have to be ‘more than’ any others who might also be vying for attention. Because of my parents’ emphasis on achievement when I was growing up, ‘more than’ has often meant ‘more intelligent’ or ‘more able than’. But – and I find this utterly reprehensible about myself – it can also mean, when it comes to those who know about my diagnosis, ‘more disturbed, more ill, more troubled’. As if I won’t merit others’ attention or their interest if I am well, or doing better than I was. And of course, as well as the desire to be ‘mother’s favoured child’, there is a feeling of jealousy and sibling rivalry towards others in a similar position. I find this particularly difficult as I have no siblings and have never dealt with these emotions before – and yet is it unmistakable that that is what they are. It seems bad enough to feel that jealousy in relation to my therapist’s other clients, who I don’t know – it seems even worse to feel it towards friends or acquaintances. I should emphasize that this is how it seems to me  – I am not suggesting that it is actually wrong or shameful to have these feelings. I know that my therapist would encourage me to stop judging myself for having them.

And yet I have a mental picture of my ‘neediness’ which illustrates how I feel about it, emotionally– it is an insect crawling along, with its antennae always searching for someone who might be able to fill that need, and its tail ready to trap and sting. It feels like a parasite, and though my emotional storm is entirely internal, I am so fearful that if any hint of it escapes, it will be repellent to others. It feels as though so many of my human interactions this week have been tinged with the sense that they can never be enough – and that makes me incredibly sad. Whether that’s the intimate session with my therapist which ended with a lovely sense of connection; or the fun, exciting and affirming email exchange with a fellow-blogger; or the interesting discussions on mental health with friends and colleagues. Interactions that felt caring, satisfying and enriching; and yet also left me feeling empty, and needing something more. Interactions that left me wondering: if you knew that while we were engaged in casual conversation, I was wishing that you would take me in your arms and hold me – would you still want to be in the same room as me tomorrow? If you knew that behind the sense of fun and the stimulating conversation, was a powerful desire for emotional connection – would you risk that conversation again? And if you knew that sometimes when I’m close to you, I just want to climb inside your heart and be kept safe there…..

My therapist DOES know. And she still’s there. But I’m not so sure about everybody else.