Life in a Bind – BPD and me

Borderline Personality Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and my therapy journey. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org. I write for welldoing.org and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges.


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A twist in the tale of this thing that I have done

[This post is written as if addressed to my therapist, and is on the subject of the notes of my ex-therapist, Jane, which I recently acquired a copy of. I have written about this in Part 1 and Part 2 of my post ‘This thing that I have done’.]

I know that I present you with different ‘voices’ at different times, both in person and over email; different versions of me, different ages. Do you wonder who you will encounter next; who will walk through the door, or whose words you are reading? Is it easy to tell? Does it make a difference to how you respond? When each ‘age’ and state of maturity is likely to interpret things differently, do you target what you say to different aspects of me, or tailor responses to ‘suit the mood’? Or do you just hope that each aspect of myself, each ‘age’ I might be feeling, takes what it needs the most, or reacts in whatever way is at the fore and will be most illuminating for therapy? Maybe I’m over-thinking how therapy works – it wouldn’t be the first or hundredth time. I’m just amazed and grateful for the way in which we left things before the Easter break. A state I could not have predicted, and which even a week or two before I would not have thought possible.

It started with you triggering the teenager when you dared to suggest that she may have been distracted in session. A few minutes before session’s end I mentioned that I had not yet brought out Jane’s notes, which I had been carrying around in my bag. You wondered why I had left it so late to mention it, and whether perhaps the notes had been on my mind the whole time. As I drove home, the wounded teenager whipped herself up into a small storm of indignation, bristling at the ‘accusation’ that she had not been paying attention; resenting the lack of faith in her commitment to therapy. As far as she was aware this was not the case, and in typical fashion she fired off a couple of impulsive emails to you to say so. When I got home I took the notes out of the bag and began to carelessly leaf through the pages; I was trying not to read them but she was almost daring the words to jump out at her and form sentences. She really wanted to read them as an act of defiance, as a way of showing you how cross she was; as a way of showing you the consequences of your lack of faith, and as a way of ‘living down’ to your expectations.

I wish I could say that it was adult sense that prevailed and made me put the notes away. There were many, many good and valid reasons why reading the notes at that point would have been neither wise nor well-motivated. But what held me back was not adult reason but a child’s enormous desire not to be cheated of something she desperately wanted.

I often find the thoughts I have when in lying in bed either just before going to sleep or just after waking up, to be illuminating and helpful. They flow freely, uncensored, unexpected – closer to free association than I can get at other times. They show me things I may not have realised. When I crawled into bed after I put the notes away, it was with a feeling of immense sadness and a single sentence repeatedly going through my mind: “Mummy, I really want to share this with you – I don’t want to do this alone”.

I was aware of feeling very young; but I was also surprised at the words in my head. I often think of you as ‘mother’, but until that point I had never verbalised that feeling, even internally, as ‘mummy’. I realised that what I was connecting with were feelings from when I was actually young, even though I couldn’t remember them; but I also knew that in that moment you were the subject of ‘mummy’, just as much as my actual mother was.

It was so difficult to speak the word ‘mummy’ out loud to you at our next session. And I wonder what would have happened if I hadn’t mentioned it to you, though I know it’s pointless to speculate. I wonder whether you saw an opportunity in what I told you, to make a connection; or whether what unfolded simply unfolded in the way that relationships do, from moment to moment. And what unfolded was surprising, moving, joyful, and very powerful.

It was with apprehension that I asked whether you would look after Jane’s notes for me – I didn’t want to put you in the difficult position of having to refuse, knowing that to do so would hurt me. In offering you the notes I wanted to remove the temptation and the opportunity for self-sabotage, and I also wanted to prove to you that notes were in no way meant to be a ‘substitute’ for you during the therapy break (another possibility you had mentioned). It was with even more apprehension that I asked whether we could at some point look at the notes together during session. Since that night when the child wrested from the teenager the possibility of sharing this experience with you, I had realised just how strongly I wanted this to be something that we did together, and how important that felt to me.

You were happy to look after the notes until I was ready to look at them with you  – with you. You agreed that this was something we could do together; that you would support me in this, if it was what I chose to do. And you seemed determined that if we did this, it was on the basis that it was part of our work, something that we shared and something for us. And therefore that meant that I should stop thinking of it as something ‘disapproved of’, ‘forbidden’, or ‘out of bounds’. I think you meant to imply that you would not be complicit in a misplaced attempt to seek connection through a familiar process of rupture and repair in which I feel I’ve done ‘the wrong thing’ and then seek your forgiveness for the imagined wrong. I think you meant to imply that this would be an explicitly joint endeavour to uncover meaning and to understand something better, and you really seemed to appreciate the importance of me not ‘going it alone’.

It’s difficult to describe how that made me feel. ‘Happy’ doesn’t adequately capture the deep joy of the feeling; yet considering that I can barely remember any longer, what it feels like to be happy, it is a significant word to use. I felt happy – and I hope you saw me smile. I hope you realised it was you who put that smile there, and why. That sense of joy lasted beyond that session and into the next one, where it was reinforced by your continued use of ‘connecting’ language – phrases that seemed to bind us together even more.

Suddenly the notes themselves, and their contents, seemed much less important. Their significance and the desire to read them, were completely eclipsed by the fact that you were willing to make them a shared experience. I still don’t know how you really feel about me reading the notes – whether you have reservations, whether you believe that it would be better if I didn’t read them, whether you feel I would learn more by being able to let go. But knowing that you are prepared to support me and share this with me, despite any reservations you might have, is an incredibly powerful experience. An incredibly joyful experience. An experience that spoke straight to the child who addressed you as ‘mummy’ and was desperate to share her experiences with you and to have you by her side. But also an experience that spoke to the teenager and to the adult too, both of whom have grown up believing that there are some thoughts, actions, and ways of being, that will never be acceptable or supported, and that ‘sharing’ experiences more often doubles, rather than halves, the difficulties.

Did you know what impact your words and attitude would have, and how powerful they would be? Was it as surprising to you, as it was to me? It shouldn’t be a surprise to me that you continue to surprise me – it is one of the many things that I enjoy about our relationship. But I am surprised at the wonderfully good timing of this moment – because it is carrying me through this therapy break with a sense of security, caring, and of a strong connection, despite your absence. And so much more feels possible, when those things are in place. The ability to maintain self-awareness and to challenge negative thoughts; the ability to recover from difficulties in other relationships, and make attempts at mending; the strength to sit with difficult emotions such as a huge sense of missing you, and to wait rather than try to fill the neediness with something else.

I don’t know what I will decide to do about the notes. But I know that if and when I read them, it will be with you, and it will be an intimate and connecting experience. But I’m in no rush – knowing that you accept, that you are with me, and that we are ‘in this together’, is all the intimate and connecting experience that I need right now, and I am grateful for it. I was so worried that the notes might somehow intrude into our therapy or undermine it – but now it feels that their chief value and purpose will be in being a shared endeavour, should the time and place (in therapeutic terms) ever be right. Thank you for a wonderful ‘gift’ going into the therapy break and for listening and responding to the voices that I was bringing you, and to the selves that needed to heal.


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Blog anniversary – a new way of seeing

On this, the second anniversary of starting my blog, I wanted to share with you a photo with a quote that encapsulates this painful, terrifying, wonderful process of recovery and therapy, which I have been writing about for the last two years. It shows why the way we navigate through this process is not by means of a route indicated on a map; but by means of a relationship, built together with another person. A very special sort of person called a therapist. This blog and this writing is dedicated to my own special person, my therapist who I love dearly. Everything I have written over the last two years is in one way or another a product of our relationship – it is a record of our work, as it manifests in my thoughts, feelings, words and actions. I am very thankful for the work already done, for the work still to do, and for her  unwavering commitment to me throughout, even when I doubted it most. She may be my ‘safe place’ but we both know that therapy is not the ultimate destination  – yet to know her even for a few years is a privilege and something I would not have wanted to miss out on. She helps me to grasp new ways of seeing things all the time, not least about love – its presence, and its presence in absence. I am so grateful for her; and I am looking forward to sharing with you whatever the next two years and new ways of seeing things, may bring.

new way of seeing things


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This thing that I have done – Part 2

[This is the second of a two-part post – Part 1 can be found here, and describes this thing that I have done, and my original reasons for doing so].

My therapist questioned me – wanting to knowing more, wanting me to understand more about why it was so important to me to get a copy of Jane (my ex-therapist’s) notes. And the more I thought about it, the more my reasons for asking for Jane’s notes seemed to be multi-layered, and more numerous than I had imaged. Months ago, I had only been aware of two; now, a number of other possibilities come to mind. The reasons that were most important to me then, are not the ones that are uppermost in my mind now. Perhaps because the reasons then, were concerned with preserving something; and now that it is ‘preserved’, it is more about discovering something.

The reasons that felt most powerful before, are very different to the ones that speak to me now that the notes are in my possession. But the latest ones are all linked, too. And, as before, they are reflected in more areas of my life than just my relationship with Jane. My therapist feels that all of this chimes with everything that’s been in the air between us over the last few months – issues of control, of fighting boundaries, and of pushing for reassurance.

It’s certainly true that I want to give myself time to decide what to do with the notes. I don’t want them to be destroyed by someone else, on someone else’s schedule. And so yes – I think it is important to me that I have control over this particular ending. I had no control over how or when things ended with Jane – neither when I left the service through which I saw her, nor when she decided to retire. If allowing myself to ‘grieve her’ was part of trying to have a ‘proper ending’, then perhaps so is this. It feels as though the notes would be far less important if our therapeutic relationship had been able to run its course. And maybe this is reminiscent of other relationships that haven’t run their course; other endings over which I had no control.

Now that I have the notes, this all feels more as though it is about me, than it is about Jane. It feels more about keeping me real, than keeping her real. The need for validation is a strong motivator – possibly the strongest motivator present right now. All those thoughts I still have about ‘making this up’, ‘being a fraud’, ‘bringing it upon myself’, ‘being overly dramatic’, ‘being attention seeking’- perhaps I can banish them by reading the notes. Perhaps then I will finally know that what is going on for me is real. Not just now, but for always. Because just as I am afraid that my memories of Jane will become insubstantial, I’m also afraid that my memories of what I am going through, will feel unreal in ten or twenty years’ time. It feels as though I need to read Jane’s notes to validate my experience; to make it count, now and in the future.

But this is also a chance not just for validation, but to really see myself through someone else’s eyes. Moreover, the eyes of someone who really ‘saw’ me, understood me, and accepted me. What would that be like? In some ways, it won’t be the same as having that knowledge communicated through relationship; in other ways, I feel as though it could be a more direct communication. Jane’s words, about Jane’s observations, about me. It feels irresistible – utterly so. As I was rapidly flicking through the pages before I reluctantly put the notes away, I caught sight of the odd word and sentence, though I was trying hard not to actually read them. I spotted the words ‘very low’ and ‘suicidal’. And that reminded me that the last time my therapist and I talked about suicide, she asked whether I felt that I was taken seriously, and I said ‘no’. I meant to come back to it – I had wanted to since the Christmas break – but something else took over, and the matter still doesn’t feel resolved. I find it hard even to take my own suicidal ideation seriously; the critical voice in my head tells me that if I was really suicidal, I would try to do something about it. But what if Jane’s notes show that she took it seriously? How would that feel? I want to know how it feels.

After I flicked quickly through the notes I turned to the last page – our ending. I tried not to read it, but the signature and the date at the bottom of the page caught my eye, as did Jane’s last sentence: “I thanked her for her card and her thoughtfulness”. If I read nothing else, that one sentence will have made the whole experience worthwhile. When I try to think of positive things that I heard about myself growing up, they mainly centre around intellectual capability and my figure (not looks in general, but specifically the shape of my body). There may well have been other positive adjectives sent my way, but what I tend to remember are things like: ‘following others like a sheep’; ‘being thoughtless’; ‘thinking only of myself’; ‘being hard and cold’. I know that some of those ‘accusations’ came because of the way I refused to show emotion to my parents and acted in a way that protected myself from their intrusion, and in that sense they feel ‘justified’. But I wish so much that I had a bank of memories and words that painted me in a different light, and one that I would rather be seen in. I can’t say a ‘truer’ light – because it feels as though the truth of it depends on someone else seeing it. That is why it feels so important to grab this opportunity to see myself through Jane’s eyes – what other sentences could be found in those notes, to give me a better sense of who I am?

But if this is a unique opportunity to see myself through Jane’s eyes, it is also a unique opportunity to see behind her own. I don’t expect the notes to tell me much about her as a person – but they may give me a window into her thoughts during our sessions. Is this not the fantasy of many a therapy client? Sometimes, when silences go on a little too long, and I am lost inside the thoughts inside my head, my therapist asks me ‘What are you thinking?’. Sometimes, I am brave enough to ask that question of her. Sometimes, she answers it. Often, she smiles; and the thoughts that I saw pass behind the smile are left unspoken, and I am left to wonder. I never knew Jane long enough to feel that I could ask her what she was thinking; or even to think of asking her what she was thinking. But perhaps the notes would give me a glimpse of a tiny minority of those thoughts.

I suspect this is what my therapist meant by saying that this chimes with what has been in the air between us. The frustration of not knowing; of not touching; of feeling excluded; of feeling distant; of not being directly reassured. The frustration of boundaries and of things that I can never have. This comes up so often in my therapy that I am afraid that you, and I – and possibly she – might become rather bored of it soon. Bored and frustrated; but this is all clearly not resolved. Clearly this keeps coming round and around because it will take time and effort, and more time and more effort, to resolve.

My therapist once wrote in an email that when it comes to therapy, ‘there are no shortcuts’. Although I no longer fear the contents of Jane’s notes in the way that I did before, I am afraid that by reading them, I would be attempting to take some sort of a shortcut. I am afraid that it might somehow be undermining to my current therapy. And I don’t want to miss the opportunity to grow, or to learn a vital lesson. Given the innumerable helpful and wonderful conversations I have had with my therapist both in person and over email, I worry about why I should imagine that Jane’s words will have a particular power to validate and affirm? Perhaps the answer is that my relationship with Jane is frozen in time – and aspects of it, at least, are impervious to change. Her opinion of me is fixed – and therefore her potential validation of me, is ongoing. Though there are many occasions on which I feel powerfully validated and cared for by my therapist, my fear of having an impact upon her and on her caring, and changing it by something I do, is always there in the background.

My therapist questioned me – but what am I to do? Where will this new understanding, lead me? I want to end by copying here a comment on Part 1 of this post by ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul‘ that I was very moved and grateful to receive. The comment struck me for several reasons: because of its thoughtfulness, its wisdom, its experience, and because it contained so many of the points that I had written about (here, in Part 2) but had not yet published. She had seen more reasons for this thing that I have done, than I had ‘spoken’ about – she had even seen more than I had thought about.

It is almost Easter – and Easter is an important anniversary for me. It is the time when Jane told me that she would be retiring and so the hope that I had been clinging on to, that I would return to therapy with her, became an impossibility. That was the ‘final’ ending, even though I had stopped seeing her six months previously. Easter last year was also the time when I realised, for the first time, that grieving had turned to acceptance, and that even if it were possible to return to therapy with Jane, I would say not do so. Anniversaries can have a powerful impact upon us, even if we are not consciously aware of them, and the comment by ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul‘, reminded me of that. A number of you have told me that you are considering doing something similar to this thing that I have done; this comment has given me pause for thought, and I hope it is helpful for you too – I hope its author does not mind me sharing it here:

“I think people are triggered by anniversaries. Connections are important for all of us. It may be the fear of being abandoned, left, or forgotten, is still a part of you wanting to hold on to, instead of learning to let go. Sometimes it entails wanting what we can’t have, and sometimes it’s about trying to fix things you wanted to end differently.

What is true, whether we like it or not, is relationships change. Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes. What is important is discovering why you now have a dialectical dilemma and how are you going to effectively deal with it. Even more important is asking yourself why it is happening now, what do I want to be the outcome, and is that realistic or more hurtful in the end? Perhaps another question may be: Am I fighting acceptance of what is? If the search is to find out whether or not you were special, what was real or not in the therapeutic relationship, the notes may not tell you that. Notes and what is put down is different for everyone. Mostly they reflect diagnoses, a treatment plan, a list of goals and objectives, and whether or not they are being met or what obstacles are getting in the way of progress and how to address them and help you effectively cope with them. You risk disappointment, misunderstandings, and it may create more problems than solving them. Jane will not be able, probably, to explain, interpret what you find. That would leave you in another dilemma. If you had a good relationship, remember the good memories. When it is all said and done, what we truly remember years later is the essence of someone and that is what matters. When you are old, good memories do come back on their own when you least expect them too. The task at hand is learning acceptance, not fighting it, and learning to let go of what was and cherish that as well as moving into the present, day by day and to keep learning and growing. It is never easy. Nature teaches us this is the pattern- the seasons come and they go. That doesn’t mean there has to be forgetting. It just means there is only so much we can deal with effectively in the present or enjoy.”


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Writing about psychotherapy – clients and therapists

There are a number of us – psychotherapy clients, that is – who write about what it is like being on ‘our side’ of the equation; what it is like sitting in that most uncomfortable of seats (though, if one is looking for at least physical comfort in the therapy room, this post describes what you need to do!).

But the blogging psychotherapist is a much rarer phenomenon; understandably, I think, in the light of the various difficulties and questions I raised in ‘Therapists who blog – I have some questions for you….!’. Nevertheless, just as therapists are fascinated by what goes on in their clients’ minds, many clients are equally fascinated about the contents of their own therapists’ minds, and in the absence of such concrete information, they are fascinated to know more about ‘how therapists think’. Of course, generalisations are as impossible to make about therapists, as they are about clients; but there is some comfort for clients, I think, in hearing other therapists’ views on questions they may feel unable to ask their own – “is it okay to be angry with you”, “what will you say or do if I tell you I love you”, “do you think about me outside of session”, “do you care about me”…to name but a few!

I follow two blogging psychotherapists – Dr Gerald Stein (now retired) and Martha Crawford from ‘What a Shrink Thinks‘ – and today I wanted to introduce you to a third, who I feel fortunate to have come across recently. Alison Crosthwait is the author of ‘The Good Therapists’ website and, as with the other two therapists I mentioned above, her writing is beautiful, moving and thought-provoking. She has published a wonderful book called ‘What it feels like to change‘ which is available through her website, and is a collection of some of her blog posts. The posts cover everything from ‘preparing’ for therapy sessions, to love and caring in therapy, to the process of understanding between therapist and client, to rage in therapy, and much more. I read it on my Kindle, and it is liberally highlighted – so much so that I really struggle to pick a sentence or paragraph to share here, but I will go with these two, which really spoke to me both in terms of my relationship with my husband, and my relationship with my therapist:

Every human being struggles in intimate relationships. The ability to sustain this struggle is a sign of health. This involves the ability to recognize the humanity of another person even when they have deeply wounded us. The ability to ask for help. The ability to speak of our experience even when it feels risky. The capacity to tolerate the ways in which those close to us do not meet our needs”.

I come in. I sit down. I say what is on my mind. And we talk. And I have to bear being who I am. Not the person I want to be, plan to be, strive to be. But me. And my therapist has to bear being who she is too. And who she is with me. And me with her. Owwww. It hurts to think about. It is so raw.”

And that’s one reason why the words of a writer-therapist can be so important to us, as clients – they write both as therapist and as client (or ex-client). They have been where we are, and can empathise with us, and we with them. They are the ‘proof’ that this process, which often seems so mysterious and indefinable, has worked for them and they see it working every day, for others like us. We can do it – even when we feel that we can’t. And we feel that we can’t, a lot.

But my favourite quote from Alison is this one, which I saw on ‘The Good Therapists’ Facebook page and which is by far the best description I have come across of what it feels like to change: “In order to change you need repeated exposure to your own coming apart, to the border between conscious and unconscious, and to the parts of yourself that you resist being with”. These questions of change and resistance have been ones I have grappled with immensely over the last few months, and I continue to go through that very painful (but rewarding) repeated exposure to my own coming apart.

Having enjoyed her book so much, I feel really honoured that Alison has included my blog in a ‘Psychotherapy Client Resource List’ that she has compiled for her new venture, ‘Therapy School’. Alison has kindly allowed me to share this fantastic reading list which you can find here (though it is normally part of her course), and I am very grateful to her for that. I really hope you find it useful – I have read a small number of these books so far, and have found them helpful and inspiring.

I am thankful for to all those – therapists and clients – who take ‘the risk’ of writing  about their thoughts and experiences, sometimes incredibly intimate ones. They have added something to my own and to others’ experiences of this amazing process of psychotherapy which, as Alison has written, is “not just about relief of suffering…it is about living a good life“.

 


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This thing that I have done – Part 1

[This is a two-part post – Part 2 will follow next weekend and will speak about how my reasons for ‘This thing that I have done’, have changed.]

I’ve done something. And I was nervous about sharing it with you because I don’t know if it was a bad thing or a good thing or a somewhere-in-between thing to have done. And I wouldn’t want you to think about doing it, before I really know how it turns out.

I went on the internet and typed in “Should I…..[do this thing that I have done]”? Out of fifteen responses to a similar question on a forum, all but one said “No“. Why would you do it? What could you gain? Leave it alone. I haven’t left it alone though I still have opportunity to let it lie. But, hidden underneath my bed, the temptation is stronger than I thought it would be.

A few months ago I approached the service through which I saw my ex-therapist, Jane, to ask them if and when they destroyed ex-client notes. It turns out that they did, and that I had a few months left before Jane’s notes would be gone. A few weeks ago I put in a request for those notes; a few days ago I picked them up. For some reason I had always imagined receiving them in a brown, sealed envelope; one that I didn’t intend to open for a very long time, if at all. Instead, they came in a yellow loose-leaf folder; a quick flick through (frantically trying to avoid reading the contents), showed me that they were longer than I expected. I had imagined a few lines, a short paragraph; little time for Jane to write much more, during the ten minutes following our fifty minute session. I think I was relying on that envelope to be my biggest ally against temptation; the glue reinforcing my willpower a hundred fold. But now my willpower struggles on alone; a tiny, weakling part of me, whose main ally now is the fear of disappointing my therapist and doing something she would disapprove of.

I told my therapist months ago, that I was thinking about asking for Jane’s notes. Though she would never say it directly, I know she thinks this thing I’ve done is not a good idea. I know she doesn’t really understand it, though she really wants to work with me to understand me and why this is important to me. There has been a generational shift – from a time when a therapist’s notes, unlike other medical records, were made for the professional’s eyes only, written with the client in mind, but never as the intended reader; to a time when your records belong to you because they are about you, and you are the ‘owner’ of your data. At the service where I saw Jane, some therapists go through their notes with their clients at the end of treatment; these days some therapists even put their notes and resources on secure websites for their clients to access after every session.

But this isn’t really about a change in culture, it’s about me. It’s about me and trying to figure out why I did what I have done, and what it means. I didn’t ask for Jane’s notes because I am the owner of my data. I didn’t even ask for them so that I could read them; part of me felt very strongly that I shouldn’t read them, at least for many years, and certainly well beyond the end of my current therapy. I asked so that I would have the option of reading them, should I want to in future. I asked so that I could postpone making the decision about whether I should ever read them, rather than having that decision made for me.

My therapist asked me what I would gain by reading the notes. And like the responses on the website that I found, I have to say that in some ways I see far more potential for loss than for gain. I have wonderful, warm memories of Jane and our sessions together, and I can’t see how anything in the notes could add to that. It seems far more likely that they might detract from those memories, and leave me unsettled. What if the notes feel clinical and cold? What if the way she comes across in writing is very different to the way she came across in person? What if I read something I don’t like, either about me or about the way she thought about me? But then I try and remind myself that this is Jane we’re talking about – someone I trusted and someone that I trusted cared about me. Could the notes really contain something that might hurt me, particularly as she knew it was possible for me to have access to them? And why are my reasons for wanting them, so difficult to understand?

***

I want to guard against forgetting. All along, this is what the notes have been about. Right now, I remember Jane: how she looked, how she sounded, some of the things she said. She still feels real, though absent. I have more than just a ‘sense’ of her left; and that is very special. But I’m scared that it won’t always be so – that one day, I won’t be able to recall those things. I’m scared that one day she won’t feel real, or substantial; that all I will have left is a vague memory and a concept that she existed, that we interacted, and that she was important. If that is the shape that my memories of key figures in my childhood have taken, why should the same not happen to my memories of Jane?

My therapist says that we remember who and what is important; and that we never know how and when memories might come back to us. During my very first session with her, when I was in floods of tears over losing Jane, she told me that Jane was still with me; and she makes the same point now. When someone is important, we absorb the relationship into ourselves so that it becomes a part of us. I think she would say that if all we have left is a ‘sense’ of someone, then that is more than we think it is and it is also all that we need.

But still I feel the need to guard against forgetting, and I have a great fear of destroying the notes (or allowing them to be destroyed) and then regretting it. I find it very difficult to live with regret and wrong decisions, and will do anything I can to avoid them. None of this is unique to this situation – it is how I live my life, every day. Worrying about not making notes after sessions, in case I forget; anxious about missing moments and not making memories; scared I will lose the memories I have.

And so I did what many of us do when we want something to remember someone by – I acquired an object that would help to connect me to them. A tangible reminder of Jane, and what she meant. This is really just another way of guarding against forgetting, and trying to keep her real. I asked my therapist why having Jane’s notes was any different to the many objects that she has in her ‘therapy room’ that are clearly important to her, and that remind her of people or of places. She said that the difference was that those things were given and received in the context of a relationship; I think she is saying that although Jane’s notes might be about our relationship, they were not really a part of it, or significant within it.

Neither of these related reasons for wanting the notes, actually require me to read them – at least, not for a long time. Simply having them can provide a sense of connection; and as I haven’t yet forgotten, there is no need to read to remember. In some ways these reasons are motivated primarily by fear: fear of forgetting; fear of regret; fear of the uncertainty of whether I will regret or forget.

I felt so strongly that I should not read the notes; that they would even be an ‘intrusion’ into my current therapy. I worried about the possibility of bringing back intense feelings from the past, and what effect that might have on my current therapeutic relationship, which I very much want to protect. But now I feel just as strongly that I want to read them. And who can tell whether our judgment, if motivated by fear, is any sounder than our judgment in the face of temptation? I don’t know how to tell what the right thing is. All I know, is that this is what my head is telling me: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear”*.

 

*Quote by Jack Canfield

 


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Where fear and courage join hands

As mentioned in my post ‘Unapologetic about making everything about therapy‘ I have a tendency, wherever possible, to use pieces of writing, poetry, or quotes, as a metaphor for therapy and for understanding this wonderful, painful and life-changing process I am going through. And so I wanted to share with you another example of this, which seems to encapsulate so many of the concepts I have struggled with over the course of the last couple of years, and in particular over recent weeks. As well as some beautiful lines there are a number of key words within this, which are meaningful but also very challenging for me, including: waiting; vulnerability; and change.

This is a prayer, creed or affirmation – but I hope it has something universal to offer, irrespective of whether or not you hold a religious faith of some kind. As I described in a previous post, my own Christian faith very much feels as though it is on the back burner at the moment, and for now, it is the comparisons with therapy that speak to me more powerfully and more immediately, than the Christian content.

How many of those in therapy would see themselves and their struggles in these beautiful lines?

“…in the waiting and uncertainty

where fear and courage join hands,

conflict and caring link arms….

or

…that takes us beyond the safe place

into action, into vulnerability…

or

We commit ourselves to work for change

and put ourselves on the line;

to bear responsibility, take risks;…

I do not wish to deny the beauty and significance of these words for the Christian context for which they were written. I believe them in that context, even if that belief feels very intangible at the moment; and many others who read this may relate to them on that level as well.

But taken as a metaphor for therapy, these words remind me that committing to therapy means committing to change. It means taking the risk of being open and laying out our thoughts and feeling before our therapists; and taking responsibility for our part in the work. These words remind me that there is an end-point beyond therapy; that the purpose is to live life more freely and more fully, but that this involves moving beyond the safe space of therapy and allowing ourselves to be vulnerable with others and to really engage with difficult process of translating everything we have learned, into action. And these words remind me that there is no manual for ‘doing therapy’ and that waiting and uncertainty may be hugely uncomfortable and unsettling, but they are part of life, and part of the work. They remind me that it takes immense courage to uncover our deepest wounds, and face our biggest fears. And finally, they speak to the painful reality that conflict and caring can and do go hand in hand, and do not need to be enemies. Somehow we have to balance the hurt of conflicts that arise with our therapists (particularly during times of intense transference) with the knowledge – could we only keep it in heart and mind during those times! – that here is someone who cares for us, is committed to us, and accepts us without question or judgment, and will continue to do so. All of this requires faith, and belief in a process that we do not fully understand, and that is unique to each of us. I hope you enjoy these words, in whatever way you may take them and use them…

Iona therapy

 


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The pain of Mother’s Day

Part I – Estranged families

It is Mother’s Day in the UK on Sunday 6 March. I’m looking forward to celebrating it with my own children, but am aware of the desire to ignore and minimise it as much as possible, when it comes to my own mother. We have never celebrated it in a major way – and for years I sent a card but nothing else. As with so much when it comes to my relationship with my mother, I was worried about expectations and the possibility of ‘give an inch, take a mile’. Should she, did she, expect a present? And if I gave her one, one year, would she expect one the next? And if she did, was that a problem?

The problem is that my desire to give, is absent. Over the last few years I have started sending her flowers on Mother’s Day, but more because I think she expects it and I know that she will be pleased. However, I can’t honestly say that what motivates me is either a desire to please, or taking pleasure in her pleasure. What I am consciously aware of is some sort of desire to ‘bargain’; the hope that by sending her flowers, she is more likely to respond positively on other occasions, or less likely to ‘have a go at me’ about lack of contact. I know that this sounds cold and unfeeling; but it comes from years of having distanced myself emotionally and having firmly put my ‘parent issues’ in a box from where they can inflict the lowest levels of guilt, pain, regret or remorse.

Through therapy, I have become more used to lifting the lid of that box. I am happy (or at least prepared) to examine my past and my relationship with my parents, and to use it to try and understand the ways in which I see the world and react within relationships. However, as regards any potential change in the way I interact with my parents – the door is still firmly closed on that possibility, and I have made it clear to my therapist that I don’t regard that as an option. I know that therapy is transformative, and that it is therefore theoretically possible that my feelings on this will change. That I will change to such an extent that at least a partial restoration of my relationship with my parents will become possible and that I will be strong enough to try to achieve it. But at the moment, that seems like pie in the sky; not just an impossible dream, but an impossible nightmare.

Just before Christmas I came across this wonderful article by psychologist and writer Dr Terri Apter, on the pain of family estrangement. It was written particularly with the Christmas holidays in mind, but it is beautifully moving and relevant for anyone struggling these issues, at any time, including the potentially triggering time of Mother’s Day. The article was very powerful for me because it seemed to completely describe and validate my situation – how I felt about my relationship with my parents, and how that had come about. For a long time I had told myself that things can’t have been that bad; if they were, how could I still have been seemingly close to my parents when I was at school? Why did I talk to them about my own relationships when I was at university; why did I attempt to build a ‘typical’ mother-daughter relationship by going out for coffee, or going shopping? Surely, if things had been that bad growing up, I would have jettisoned the relationship years before I actually did (in my mid-twenties)? Maybe my parents were right to blame me for what they perceived as a very sudden change in my behaviour when I met my husband, which seemed to them to come completely out of the blue.

But this article helped me to realise that when it came to adults who ended up estranged from their families, my own response was far from unusual. To quote: “….most estrangements were instigated not by a disapproving parent but by a son or daughter, and not in the heat of irritable adolescence, but between the ages of 24 and 35. From my own research I hypothesize that estrangement is instigated only after years of attempts to achieve approval and comfort, and that the adult child felt that a deep estrangement lay at the heart of the relationship, that any apparent harmony or affection was based on showing a false self to the parent. While family estrangement is sometimes temporary, an adult child who instigates estrangement is likely to believe that a functional relationship with a parent – a relationship that does not involve pain and humiliation, or bring with it a sense of betrayal – will never be possible.

The highlighting is my own, and it is there because these are passages that particularly struck me and resonated completely with my experience. For the last few years I haven’t even been able to show a ‘false self’ to my parents. In the past, I used to portray a self that was always positive and happy; now, I portray the most minimal self possible. I am afraid to show any positive as well as negative emotion, for fear that it will be somehow be sucked up and absorbed, or that I will be ‘over-run’ in some way by an ‘other-ness’ that isn’t me. I cannot bear to be known or seen, and that includes those things that might make my mother happy, as well as the things that might make her upset, disappointed or angry.

But for me, the most poignant line in the article, is this:

When a daughter or son made the difficult decision to sever the relationship, it was usually because they felt that maintaining it was too emotionally costly, that they had to distort their very soul into shapes that did not feel right to them in order to please or pacify a parent.” –

That feels like the most perfect description of what I experienced growing up, and I am so grateful to the author for capturing it and expressing it in this way.

Although I try and avoid meeting up with my parents on or close to Mother’s Day, last year I happened to see them a few days before, and on the same day as one of my therapy sessions. I remember going into a shop before my session and buying some flowers for my mother, and suddenly being overwhelmed by immense sadness and pain. I was buying flowers for someone I didn’t feel like giving them to, with whom I didn’t have a meaningful relationship; and yet I desperately wanted to buy flowers for my therapist, who I knew would not be able to accept them. I spoke to my therapist about it immediately afterwards; I couldn’t really help it, as I was in tears the minute I walked through the door. She was wonderfully kind and acknowledged the desire to buy flowers (and the underlying one, of wanting to be her daughter); and without sounding in any way clichéd, made it clear that it really was the thought that counted, and she understood how much I had wanted to do that for her. That meant a very, very great deal.

This year the flowers for my mother will be going by courier. But I’m very much aware that though I have spent hours on a small home-made gift for my ‘therapy-mother’, very few minutes of thought or attention have been spent on the card and the flowers for my actual mother. I recognise this as sad – even if I can’t feel it as sad; but if you believe, as the article mentions, that a functional relationship is impossible, it would be torture, I think, to allow that sadness a foothold. I know this is not particularly therapeutically sound or healthy – and that eventually, I will have to grieve the lack of this relationship, rather than simply consigning it to the scrapheap. But until I do, I simply cannot afford, emotionally, to carry around any feelings about it – either of sadness or of guilt – and particularly not on days like Mother’s Day.

There is only so long we can distort our souls into shapes that don’t feel right – and the longer we continue to do that, the more distorted our own view of ourselves becomes, and the more distorted our view of our place in the world. In that context, the emotional cost of family estrangement may be high; but it may be preferable to the cost of never really finding out the shape our souls really want to take, or being able to experience ourselves in the context of meaningful relationships with others who see us and value us for who we truly are.

Part II – Difficult mothers

I wrote Part I of this post a few days ago and since then, Terri Apter has published another very helpful article along similar lines, but specifically about difficult mothers and the triggering time of Mother’s Day. One paragraph in particular, struck me (highlighting my own):

About 20% of mother/child relationships, however, are so unresponsive, inflexible, controlling or volatile that a child must adhere to her or his mother’s own self-absorbed terms, or be cast out. The child feels attached, but at the same time disconnected. The dilemma, ‘either develop complex and constricting coping mechanisms to maintain a relationship with me on my own terms, or suffer disapproval, ridicule, or rejection’, leaves her child with an impossible choice: ‘Do I look out for myself, or do I cut myself into the shape she needs me to be?’ “

As described above, I recognise these feelings in relation to my own mother. But it speaks to the power of psychotherapy that when I read this the first thoughts that came into my mind were of my therapy relationship. After an intensely difficult session on Friday, I sent my therapist two emails, and when she replied, this was part of what of what she said: “Painful as it is, the past experiences may have to be recreated so that both of us can experience them and begin to understand them better”.

I can’t bear that that is happening, but it is. I feel attached, but disconnected. The boundaries of therapy, the process of change, her own decisions on how to respond to me – all trigger the sense that I can have a relationship only on her own terms, and that I must shape myself into something that will not frustrate her or the therapeutic process. Part of me knows that her decisions and the therapeutic boundaries are not about changing or controlling or rejecting me – but I’m inside that recreation so deeply at the moment, that nothing my ‘rational brain’ tells me right now, is getting through.

But two things give me hope. Firstly, that the outcome in therapy, can be different. I have been telling my therapist that I feel dangerously close to cutting myself off emotionally from her, as I have done from my mother. But as she keeps telling me, she is not my mother – and I can do things differently this time, and learn that at least in relation to her, my fear of being irreparably hurt, is unfounded. And secondly, should I be able to bear contemplating it, there is the possibility (captured at the end of Terri Apter’s article) of developing a greater sense of generosity and empathy towards my own mother. According to Dr Apter, this process ‘shores up one’s own soul’; so that, even if I cannot bear the thought of making myself vulnerable enough to do it for my mother, maybe I can do it for myself – for the soul that is trying to heal, and to bend itself back into its rightful shape.