My therapy journey, recovering from Borderline Personality Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. I write for welldoing.org , for Planet Mindful magazine, and for Muse Magazine Australia, under the name Clara Bridges. Listed in Top Ten Resources for BPD in 2016 by goodtherapy.org.
Of course my attention was immediately caught by the words ‘…and thought of you’ – it was good to know that she had thought of me outside of session! But then I read the article itself, and was even more grateful to her for sharing it.
Although its title is ‘Embrace your inner Ziggy Stardust – the power of personas in therapy’, the article itself makes the point that for most people, embracing that ‘power of personas’ does not require years of therapy, and that understanding and using our different personas is valuable for everybody.
When I first started to think in more depth about the different parts of me, and to actually identify them and acknowledge the internal dialogues that were going on between them, it felt strange, and ever so slightly ‘illegitimate’. On the one hand I didn’t want to ‘trespass’ on the language and concepts of Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID); on the other hand I felt slightly foolish about (in essence) talking to myself, and then trying to interpret those conversations.
But the article helped to underscore for me, the validity and helpfulness of what I was doing. It talks about the value of writing down a list of our personas, and naming them, as I attempted to do in a light-hearted way in my post ‘Parts of me‘. It acknowledges the fact that with self-awareness, you can watch these different personas ‘come out to play’, and importantly, can learn to choose which one takes the stage at any one time. It describes how we can better come to know the different parts of ourselves and identify the origin (very often in childhood) of each of them, and therefore understand the needs that lie behind each one. And for anybody who is already engaged in that process of getting ‘a dialogue going between our different parts‘, you may well empathise with what the article describes as David Bowie’s experience of using personas to ‘comfort himself and address his fears‘. Recently, I have been trying to use the awareness and power of my internal dialogues to try and identify which parts (or personas, using the article’s phraseology) are feeling distressed, and trying to help them feel better.
A final note about terminology – I like the word ‘persona’, but will continue to use the word ‘parts’ to describe my own inner personas, for a number of reasons; though I want to make it very clear that I am using the term only in its most ‘ordinary’ sense, and not as a descriptor or short-hand for DID (which I do not have). A couple of people have suggested that the term ‘role’ might be a good alternative, because it sounds less like I am talking about discrete entities. However, my use of the word ‘parts’ aligns with the ordinary way in which I talk about them in therapy, and how any of us might describe our thought processes to each other, for example: “part of me really wants to go to bed, but another part of me really wants to go out with my friends”. Or, “part of me feels really angry with you, but another part understands where you’re coming from”. I mean the word to be taken in no more discrete a sense than that. Plus, for me, the word ‘role’ implies something that I inhabit with fair regularity, and something that is visible, as well as potentially being something I ‘put on’ or ‘take on’, without it necessarily being a true expression of myself; and all of those are connotations that don’t feel quite right, when I think about some of my ‘parts’. For example, I inhabit the ‘role’ of mother, for most of my waking life, but the internal part I think of as the ‘maternal’ part of me, is incredibly small and uncertain and vulnerable and underdeveloped, and not at all like the ‘role’ I attempt to play on a daily basis. And some of my parts exist mainly as thoughts and feelings, perhaps manifesting more as ‘moods’ than as fully blown ‘personas’.
I hope that for many – and particularly perhaps for David Bowie fans! – this will be an interesting and helpful article, which perhaps will encourage you to start to explore ways of getting a dialogue going between your own different personas, if you haven’t already!
There are some truly iconic movie theme tunes and soundtracks that are as much a part of the experience and legacy of the film, as the plot and characters themselves. In the same way, many of us have pieces of music that constitute a ‘soundtrack’ for our lives –pieces that are inextricable bound up with certain events and which are immediately evocative of particular feelings, when we hear them. I had such a ‘soundtrack’ during one of the worst years of my life, at university. It was an incredibly turbulent period, with self-destructive and damaging behaviour, and some rather disturbed and disturbing thinking. There is a song I strongly associate with that period – I haven’t listened to it since, and I never want to listen to it again.
I didn’t want Alan Walker’s “Faded” to become such a song. On the one hand it was less likely, because its negative associations were of a much shorter duration. On the other hand, it was the soundtrack of a weekend which led to my therapist questioning whether she was the right person to be helping me, and was associated both with a destructive desire for conflict, and a resulting fear of abandonment.
After that weekend, I worried that listening to it would trigger that same need for conflict and the sense of my ‘rational self’ being ‘held under’ by the same desire to regress rather than progress. But I was also longing to hear it again and to watch the video, whose visuals were just as evocative as the music, and which I wrote about in my post ‘A tale of three houses: therapy, progress, and internal conflict’. And so it was important for me to find a way to break the association between the song and a situation that if left unchecked might have cost me an immeasurably precious relationship. I had to try and give it a different interpretation and meaning, one which was far less threatening to therapy and to progress.
During that weekend, I saw the song and its images as being about therapy, a sense of disconnection from my therapist, and foreboding of a future failure to attain longed-for security and a sense of being loved. But maybe another interpretation was possible. I remembered that during those days I had been aware of a small voice urging me to ‘stand up for us, fight for us’. The inner child, pleading with me to put up some resistance to the internal saboteurs. Perhaps the lyrics ‘where are you now?’ could be seen as her words to me, and not my words to my therapist.
Seen in that way, the song was more an entreaty by someone who loved me and was with me, than a cry to someone I wanted to love me, and to be with me. Seeing myself as the object rather than the subject of the song, helped me to feel wanted and connected, rather than disconnected and lost. The change of perspective enabled me to listen to the song not just without being haunted by negative associations, but with a real sense of warmth and closeness. You may call it just a sleight of hand; and after all, neither interpretation represents an external, ‘scientific’, objective reality. But the stories we tell ourselves are incredibly powerful, and therapy is, amongst other things, a chance to rewrite the story that we tell ourselves, about ourselves and our relationships. Songs, books, poems, pictures, dreams – all have a role to play in this too.
A few weeks ago, when I made a commitment to myself to be ‘all in’ as far as therapy was concerned – even more trusting, more open, more vulnerable, more accepting of change and where it was leading, than ever before – my inner child let me know what she thought about that idea, in a very unequivocal way. She showed me what she thought it would mean for her, in two vivid and dramatic dreams.
In the first, a friend – who looked very much like me – dropped by unannounced to tell me she was pregnant but was on her way to get an abortion. She was talking in whispers so that ‘the baby’ wouldn’t hear. In the second dream, one character was trying to persuade me and a companion to participate in sex with him, in order to extract payment from a fourth party who was observing. I refused, at which point the dominant character poisoned my companion and once I was undefended, forced me to have sex. Though the experience was unwanted and unpleasant, there was also a sense that having been ‘liberated’ from the presence of my companion, part of me enjoyed it.
Though I think there is much to unpack in both dreams, and a number of interpretations are possible, my associations were fairly immediate. For me, change and recovery has always felt as though it would involve a part of me dying; and I have always had a fear of vulnerability. And so it seemed to me as though my inner child was saying that she was afraid that me going ‘all in’ would be equivalent to killing her, or raping her. Those were her fears, and that’s what she wanted to show me. Though perhaps she was also expressing ambivalence – a hope that we might receive something (praise, approval?) from my therapist, and also a chance that the experience may actually end up being a positive one for her, on some level.
We didn’t always have a good relationship, my ‘inner child’ and I. In fact, I said and thought some pretty terrible things about her (as described in my posts ‘Inner child and past child‘ and ‘Do you love the inner child?‘) and I could never previously have imagined being able to see her compassionately or relating to her in a positive way. I saw her as weak and feeble, and blamed her for not being more robust and thus not protecting me from sadness, depression or anxiety. The things we fear we ourselves have been and done, we project onto others, even internal others, it seems.
This all changed quite suddenly, though I didn’t initially realise why, over the course of the Easter therapy break. An important, intimate and bonding moment had taken place during therapy just before that break, and it carried me through those two weeks in a remarkable way. That moment was a special one in which the needs of both adult and inner child were met, and though my therapist did the ‘meeting’, it was the inner child who came to be met, and who was strong enough to provide the opportunity. She held fast against the desire of a part of me to self-sabotage and to sabotage the therapeutic relationship, and in doing so she gave me – gave us both – a wonderful gift.
Again, you could say that this is just a story that I told myself, to explain an aspect of my progress in therapy. But it has been a powerful and beneficial one, helping me to relate to myself and others differently. As my therapist said at one point in session, if it works, then why not use it?
It is working, and my dreams are also changing. For a long time, I have suspected that within my dreams, the figure of my youngest child represents my own inner child. And for months I have had dreams in which he falls into water and drowns, often when I am distracted or arguing with someone else. But over the last few weeks, I or others have managed to save him. And much more recently, the dreams haven’t involved water at all, though they have still sometimes involved abandonment. A couple of weeks ago I dreamed that I had arranged three one-hour play dates for him, but I had forgotten about him and left him at the first one for hours. I emailed the dream to my therapist, and she told me that she laughed when she read it. I looked at her in puzzlement until she pointed out that we have three one-hour sessions per week – the thought hadn’t even occurred to me…..
I am still learning how to deal with this new relationship with my inner child; I keep being surprised both by how comforting the connection feels, and how completely bizarre (and sometimes even silly) the whole thing sounds. All I know is that it seems to help; and when I felt really sad, desperate and unheard after therapy a few weeks ago, I realised that those were her feelings and I stopped to consider what would help her feel better. Suggestions came into my head and were discarded – they seemed too ‘grown-up’, too rational, too serious, or too intellectual. I settled on colouring in, and knew I’d hit upon the right thing when I started to feel better just at the thought of buying colouring pencils and stationery. A memory of the best Christmas present ever, came rushing back – a pack of pretty pens that I’d really wanted, that reduced me to tears when I opened them.
There’s a quote by Mother Teresa: “I can do things you cannot, you can do things I cannot; together we can do great things”. I’m really hoping that’s the way it can be for me and my inner child – great things, great healing.
[Preamble: A reader asked if I was claiming, in this post, to have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), and so I wanted to clarify what I am trying to describe, and make it clear that I am not here talking about DID. As I understand it, in DID the ‘parts’ switch in and out and aren’t aware of each other at the time, and to a large extent have their own memories as well. Whereas my ‘parts’ are simply the roles and different ways of relating that I tend to fall into – some are more childlike, and some more parental, for example. But I’m aware of them all and as far as I retain memories (which is an issue for me generally) they are all ‘my’ memories, covering all experience irrespective of what role I feel I’m in, and when I speak in this post about locking things away, I am talking about suppressing feelings rather than ‘switching’. I feel conscious when I am talking about ‘parts’ that I am to some extent trespassing on the language of DID – however, I think that it can be a helpful language and way of thinking about aspects of oneself in general, and I am hoping I won’t confuse or offend by using it!]
It has been useful for me recently, to be able to think of the different aspects of myself as semi-distinct ‘parts’, and I drew a picture of these in a recent post. Bearing them in mind has helped me to more easily identify when I am slipping into particular ‘roles’ or ways of being, and to try and stay on top of and in control of, the various thoughts and emotions that accompany them. It has also helped me to try and figure out ways of soothing or helping myself, depending on which ‘part’ is most at the fore.
However, I have started to wonder whether I am beginning to misuse the concept – as with most things, there can be less helpful applications in addition to the valuable ones. Last weekend I felt as though I was hovering above my feelings; for example, I was aware of at least three different emotions in response to my therapist’s offer of an additional session this week, but I wasn’t really feeling any of them. I felt like an observer of, rather than a participant in, my own reactions. And when my therapist asked me a few days ago how I had been feeling over the weekend, I found I couldn’t really answer the question.
That experience may have been a response to my intense sessions last week, when I was describing past distressing events in which I had dissociated and felt as though I was observing myself. Perhaps my sense over the weekend of being a ‘watcher’ of my feelings, was a mild re-creation of that experience. On the other hand, I have also noticed a tendency recently to use my ‘parts’ as a sort of ‘dumping ground’ for my feelings – somewhere to put them to ‘get rid of them’. Or, thinking of it another way, I have come to visualise my ‘parts’ as lockers – places where I can shut things away that I consider ‘bad’ and undesirable. This is particularly true of aspects associated with the part I call ‘the stroppy one’, and feelings and behaviours that remind me of the ‘teenage me’. These are the aspects described in recent posts such as ‘Addicted to feeling torn’ and ‘A tale of three houses: therapy, progress and internal conflict’ – self-destructive, relationship-destructive, looking for a fight. I am starting to get a handle on how to deal with the ‘inner child’ part of me, but I haven’t got a clue about how to reach the slightly older version of that child. And so it has felt much easier to simply pick up on her presence, think ‘oh, that’s not good’ and then mentally compartmentalise her experience and try and shut it away.
My therapist encouraged me to think of the parts as filing cabinet drawers rather than lockers – not somewhere to shut feelings away, but a way of identifying where they might belong, where they have come from and what they might be linked with. I think that is helpful, but I’m still struggling to find a middle ground between becoming immersed in all my emotions, whether positive or negative, and maintaining a healthy perspective without cutting myself off from them. I didn’t like that sense of ‘hovering over’ my feelings during the weekend – it felt far too remote.
As well as feeling ‘cut off’, another difficulty of trying to lock parts away, is of course the fact that it doesn’t really work. The parts are still persistently there, and it takes mental energy to actually keep the lockers locked. While that energy is slowly being drained, the parts themselves are growing in their clamour to be heard, and they become more easily triggered and harder to ignore. A couple of days ago I went into therapy feeling a little like the person on the left, and came out feeling a lot like the person on the right:
It wasn’t just my ability to keep ‘the stroppy one’ from taking over that seemed to have vanished, but my desire to do so as well. Although some part of me really didn’t want to feel that bad, other aspects were colluding to persuade me that it was pointless to resist the angry and self-destructive feelings, and that giving in to ‘her’ would be a welcome relief.
Perhaps if I had tried to consistently ‘file’ her rather than ‘dump’ her, I may have been more successful in terms of staying in control; though I suspect she is almost as resistant to categorisation as she is to segregation! But I have been trying to keep her away from my therapist, fearing the wrecking power that she has over the relationship, and perhaps that was a mistake. Things always have more power when not talked about, and therapy should be the place where anything can be brought out into the light.
I will continue to try and understand the various parts of me, and allow myself to experience them rather than trying to identify but then ignore them. In the meantime, if anyone has any suggestions on how to get through to a stroppy teenager and help her feel better, they would be very welcome!
The question was: “…. just read this ‘old post’… and was wondering how you would feel if you read it today. Did things change for you concerning the ‘therapy bubble’?….”
So I went back and read the post, and it seemed to fit so well with some of the things I’m thinking about at the moment in relation to therapy, that by way of answering the question I thought it would be appropriate to share it as a ‘Memory Monday’ post.
How do I feel, reading the original post now? I think I feel that I can still relate very closely to everything described in it – while at the same time recognising that some things have changed. I still find it very difficult to leave my ‘therapy bubble’ – particularly when, as has been happening recently, sessions have involved talking about painful and distressing material and have left me feeling regressed and child-like. At those times I hate leaving, and I hate the thought of coping by myself with those emotions. The need for comfort, for my therapist, is intense. As well as a desire not to leave the therapy bubble, it’s also a fear of staying in the place that therapy has taken me, but without her presence to contain me.
I think I do still feel guilt over the time and mental energy that therapy takes – or rather over the time it ‘takes away’ from my family life. My thoughts are so often absorbed by it – either directly, or because I’m ‘processing’ something – when I should be more present with my children. However, I now often remind myself of an incredibly valuable comment that someone made to me a few months ago. I mentioned that sometimes I feel guilty because if I wasn’t spending money on therapy I could take my children to Disneyland. She said that she only wished her own parents had spent money on therapy, rather than Disneyland. And that made so much sense (and I shared the same wish – not that I went to Disneyland as a child!), that it helps me to feel a little less guilty and to more fully appreciate that in trying to change myself, I am also making things better for mine and my children’s current and future relationship. And that change will, hopefully, trickle down through the generations, into the ways that they parent their own children.
As for emotional development and the weight of being an adult – I think that my recent ability to identify ‘parts’ of myself and to relate to them almost as separate entities, and to observe their thoughts and feelings, has helped me to not get completely taken over by them, and to stay in a ‘more adult’ frame of mind more often than I used to be able to. It’s a very great struggle, and my mind and heart are still often battlefields in which wars of words and emotions take place – but it’s a question of ‘who’ is uppermost and in control, even if the ship is very difficult to steer, or even if it’s only just possible to keep my ‘adult head’ above water.
Separation is still incredibly difficult – but I think I am better able to cope and I fight hard to try and retain a sense of my therapist’s constancy and my connectedness to her. It is often a fight – against myself, as described in a recent post – and it is far from automatic. But I am managing it more often, and as well as this being a function of the therapeutic relationship and the closeness and trust I am discovering over time; I think it is also at least partly due to the fact that I am on a more even keel because other areas in my life are slowly improving. My husband may still feel that there is little improvement in our marriage – but at least now he says that I am a much better flatmate! For me, this is a key first step – and it also means that there are fewer huge rows and triggers for my suicidal ideation.
At the end of the original post I wrote: “Perhaps when the separation becomes a bit more bearable, I’ll know that there is a bit less growing up to do“. I think there now is a bit less growing up to do – though the thought of it, and of the eventual ending of therapy, is as terrifying as ever. In that sense, I am still clinging, desperately, to my ‘bubble’ and the thought that it will burst eventually, is still heartbreaking. But for now, I am making the most of being metaphorically ‘held’ inside that bubble during session itself, and trying to remember that I am ‘held in mind’ when I am outside it.
If my reader is still reading in a year’s time, perhaps they will be kind enough to ask me the same question again? I wonder what my response will be….. 🙂
In my previous post, ‘The importance of saying goodbye‘, I talked about the fact that in order to be able to feel that one has had a ‘good ending’, it is important to have the opportunity to say goodbye. In writing it, I drew on my experience both of loss through death (in which I did not experience ‘good endings’), and the loss of a therapy relationship (which though untimely, was ultimately a positive experience).
I wanted to share with you this post by Dr Ryan Howes (who used to write the ‘In Therapy’ blog for Psychology Today) called ‘4 Reasons not to ghost your therapist‘. As he explains, ghosting “is when someone in a close relationship suddenly disappears, like an avoidant apparition. They’re there one day, everything seems to be going fine, and then they disappear——they’ve ghosted.” Although it may be tempting to do that in therapy (and Ryan Howes explains why), in reality this benefits neither the client nor the therapist.
I’ve read a few similar articles on this subject, and readers who have been in therapy often comment that the client is under no obligation to give the therapist feedback or enable them to be a ‘better therapist’. This post acknowledges that that is true, while at the same pointing out that there are all sorts of spheres of life where we give feedback not so much to benefit ourselves, but to benefit others (both the therapist and their future clients, in this case). Giving feedback about one’s therapy experience is much more emotive (and therefore much more difficult) than alerting a restaurant to poor service; but it is correspondingly more important and we shouldn’t discount the value of such an exercise purely on the basis that we have the right to leave without explaining why.
Ultimately, a key reason not to ‘ghost’ is that, as Ryan Howes explains, we “don’t have enough good endings in life” – and good endings are possible. By ghosting, we could be denying ourselves the chance of such an ending, and the healing it can bring. As the article says at the end: “More important for you is the loss of a clean, good ending—a missed opportunity to express yourself. You lose a chance to dive into material that may be difficult, but ultimately beneficial for you.” Ghosting may feel easier at the time, but it may come at a longer-term cost, whether conscious or unconscious, and it represents a missed opportunity for personal growth. And as Ryan Howes says, “That’s why you chose to come to therapy in the first place, isn’t it?”
When I saw this clip, it immediately reminded me of the first person that I lost to death. I was a child and they were a close family member who went through a fairly brief battle with cancer. I wasn’t there at the end and I can’t remember whether it was days or weeks between the last time I saw them, and their death; and yet this was someone who until their hospitalisation, I saw several times a week. There was no goodbye and I was not allowed to go to the funeral. There was also no grieving on my part; the unconscious decision not to, had already been made, and the adults around me were far too preoccupied with their own grief and with seeking reassurance from me, to notice. Though I have no memory of most of my feelings at that time, the way I responded to this clip made me wonder whether deep inside I had wanted a ‘good ending’ and a chance to say goodbye.
By the time the scenario was repeated with a second close family member, my emotional defenses were already in place to absolutely guarantee that the pain would be minimal. I didn’t want to say goodbye or go to the funeral, even though this time I had to. People commented on the fact that I didn’t cry; but at least they weren’t asking me to try and negate their long-held atheism with reassurances of the existence of an after-life. All that I knew was that life after a death was a place of blackness, crying, desolation and lack of joy. There was no celebration of either of those lives, and that made the endings – unresolved as they were – so much worse.
A couple of years ago I read ‘Family’ by Susan Hill. It is a moving account of the author’s struggles to complete her family, following the birth of her first daughter, Jessica, in 1977. A few years later Susan Hill gave birth to a little girl prematurely, and she survived for only five weeks. The account of her brief life, and her death, is heart-breaking; but what struck me most of all was the way in which Jessica was fully involved and had the chance to say a proper goodbye to her sister. Just like her parents did, she held the little girl’s lifeless body in her arms, and gave her a last cuddle.
I know many people might disagree with Susan Hill’s decision, thinking that it would have been too distressing for a young child – my parents certainly would have thought so. When I first read about it I was shocked and surprised – but now I hope I would have had the courage and conviction to do the same, in that situation. Though not yet in double figures in age, Jessica encountered death face to face – and I like to think that she may have grown up into a woman who is less afraid of it as a consequence. A woman with loving memories of someone that she lost, that may bring pain, but also joy at what was gained before it was lost. Of course that’s all speculation; but if it’s true, I also like to think that what made it possible, was the fact that she had a chance to properly say goodbye.
Stepping back, after two years, into the counselling service where I used to see Jane (my ex-therapist), felt strange. For the first few months after our therapy ended, even driving past the building was painful. The prospect of entering it again had filled me with apprehension; and before I could do it I had to check with the service manager that Jane had indeed retired, as she had planned, and that the room I would be attending a meeting in was not the one in which I had had sessions. I was afraid of how I might feel if I were to bump into her again; and of what it would be like to sit in that room. If there were a choice of chairs, which would I choose? I couldn’t risk sitting in the ‘patient’s’ position in case it was too triggering; I couldn’t sit in the therapist’s chair as that had been her space. It would have to be another seat – but there was still the worry that even being in the room would be too difficult and too distressing.
Though I felt unsettled, I managed to concentrate during my meeting and the next time I went back it was a little easier. During my most recent visit, I got up the courage to ask the service manager if I could go into ‘Jane’s’ room and take some photographs. For a while I had had a nagging desire to take a picture of the view out of Jane’s window – the view I spent so much time looking at because I found it so difficult to maintain eye contact. I remembered the view well, but was motivated – as was the case with wanting a copy of Jane’s notes of our sessions – by the fear of losing that memory one day. Having a picture of the view felt more important than having a picture of the room itself; perhaps because it was a memory of my vantage point and a direct recollection of my experience, rather than of the context in which it took place. In some ways the view was evocative of the therapeutic relationship itself. I was surprised when the service manager agreed to my request, and that she left me to it, albeit with the door open.
The room was smaller than I remembered, and less bright; though perhaps that was because I was visiting at a different time of day. I sat in ‘my’ chair – it didn’t even occur to me to sit in Jane’s, though when I think about it now, I wonder if perhaps I should have done….I took a picture of the view, which hadn’t changed, and of Jane’s chair and the wall behind it, which had. They seemed more drab and less interesting, somehow; but then again, I’m sure she was the only thing I noticed when she was there, and so they may well have been much the same.
The biggest and most reassuring change in the room, was that Jane wasn’t there. The room was empty; or at least, empty of her. I’m pleased I took the photos; I don’t need them now, but I may be glad of them in the future. And if there’s one thing that consistently drives me, it’s guarding against regret and the fear of mistakes, and at least this way even if I never look at them again, I cannot regret not taking them. But what I’m most glad of is that going into the room showed me the truth of the point my therapist has been trying to make all along – the same point she made in connection with Jane’s notes and that I’m sure she would have made it in connection with taking the photos, had I asked her before I did it. The point being that memories can be enough; that we remember what we need to. That I carry Jane and what she meant to me, with me. That the lived experience of the relationship is not something I can hang onto either via a bland record of it, or a picture of the place in which it unfolded; but that it is something I have internalised.
Going into the room and finding that Jane wasn’t there, and that that felt okay, showed me that my therapist was right. I had what I needed, and it wasn’t in that room.
When I spoke to my therapist about this a few days later, I told her it had been a relief to find that the room hadn’t been haunted by Jane. That I hadn’t been haunted by her presence, in it. I think that’s what I had been expecting, and was afraid of.
I realised, quite suddenly, that that fear went back to my first family loss. I remembered how on occasion, my parents and I would stay the night in that family member’s house. How I had to sleep in their room, in their bed, and that I was terrified. On the one hand, there was an irrational fear of ‘contamination’ – that somehow the illness and suffering they had been through, could be catching. By that stage I think I’d already acquired the belief that is still firmly rooted inside me today – that I will go through the same thing myself, at a similar and comparatively young age. And then there was the terror of waking up in the middle of the night and finding their ghost standing at the end of the bed. I was afraid to go to sleep and afraid to lie there in the dark. The whole room felt haunted by their presence, and by sickness and death.
My therapist said that she associated the word ‘haunted’ with an unresolved or somehow negative ending. One definition of the phrase, is ‘to be repeatedly troubled’, and both this meaning and my therapist’s, were certainly true for those early family losses which involved neither grieving nor good-byes.
Although my therapeutic relationship with Jane did not have a chance to run its course – as I saw her through a service that offered only short to medium term support – we had the vitally important chance to prepare for our ending, and to say goodbye. And so though at the time it was heart-breaking, and though it took a full eighteen months before I felt as though I had fully grieved her loss, it turned out to be a ‘good ending’. My only ‘good ending’ – so far.
What this short clip doesn’t show you, is what happened immediately afterwards. Meredith is gripped by anguished tears – presumably, with the realisation of what she unthinkingly denied Amelia. Sometimes, we act without thought; sometimes, with the best of intentions. But I hope, if nothing else, this post can be encouragement to us to try and ensure we do not deny ourselves or others (most commonly, our children), the chance to say goodbye before a loss: whether that be the loss of a loved one to death, the loss of a friend due to a change of school, the loss of a pet, the loss of a house due to a move – even the loss of a therapist. Along with allowing ourselves, or them, to grieve, it gives us all the best chance that we will come to feel it as a ‘good ending’ – even if it feels anything but ‘good’ at the time – and that is a priceless gift.
This didn’t happen to me. Not exactly like this. I had family at my wedding – though I don’t know most of my extended family very well. My parents were there. But so were the threats – of not being there. The disapproval of my choices – lots of different kinds of choices – was there. The trusting me, the having faith in me – or at least pretending to do so – was not there. There are lots of ways of being abandoned; many forms of being left at the altar.
Every time I watch this, when Amelia says “Mummy” I can’t help but cry. It’s a desperate sound, and it tears at me. The tearing must be an echo of something not remembered, because these days it’s a word that means little when I say it to my own mother. A word that in my mouth often sounds angry, or feels uncomfortable, or wrong.
But it’s also a word that sometimes slips out in my thoughts when I am talking to my therapist in my head. If only it could belong to her, my usage of that word. I worry in case I accidentally say it out loud – while at the same time wishing that I could, and that it was legitimate or okay. I wonder how it would feel for it to have a gentle sound, and to be spoken in closeness and in love. Not a desperate sound, but a trusting whisper, held safe in the air between us, and folded into our hearts. I would like that.
“You came to me like that house – unfinished, a work in progress….”
This half-house is an unfinished house – a beautiful place I visited and told my therapist about. It captured my imagination because it was haunting and mysterious; but it was also full of potential. My therapist picked up on this idea of potential and used it as a wonderful metaphor to describe me; and I think it works also as a metaphor for our therapy*. Her metaphor made me feel safe – adopted, and parented.
But at the same time, when out of her presence, part of me was scared. If something is ‘in progress’ it is changing. If therapy is ‘progressing’ it is ever closer to its end. Progress and loss are tightly bound together for me; change and loss are intertwined. Last weekend my first thought on waking was that things were better than they had been during the previous disastrous and self-destructive weekend. But my very next thought was that progress felt like bleeding out – slowly losing something vital.
“A half-house stands on a hill: but is it an unfinished house, or a ruin? Which are you, and which do you want to be? The problem with trying to preserve that conundrum…….is that the unfinished house – with so much potential – is transmogrifying moment by moment into a ruin, the longer it is left unattended to.”
There is a tension between becoming and decaying, and it’s easy, but also dangerous, to feel torn between the two.
Image taken from a photo by Janno Kusman, via Wikimedia Commons
“Where are you now? Another dream; the monster’s running wild inside of me… so lost, I’m faded….” – ‘Faded’ by Alan Walker
When I first saw this image in Alan Walker’s wonderful video for his song ‘Faded’, it reminded me immediately of the ‘half-house on a hill’. Only this building is a ruin, not a work in progress. It is also haunting, but in a very different way. The building is part of the Rummu quarry in Estonia, which was excavated as hard labour by inmates in the two nearby prisons. It has been turned into a breathtakingly unique beach and dive site**, though its waters can be lethal as the lake bed contains remnants of concrete, metal bars and barbed wire.
The song (and the video) took me over for a weekend. My watching and listening both fuelled and were fuelled by, a semi-subconscious attempt at subverting recent progress in my therapy. The lyrics spoke of feeling lost – and I put up no fight to a sense of disconnection from my therapist. No fight to the lack of object constancy represented by the lines “Where are you now? Was it all in my fantasy? Where are you now? Were you only imaginary?”. Part of me wanted that sense of disconnection and separation – it showed that I still needed her, and it also held the promise of reconciliation. A sense of comfort and drawing close after a fight. I hadn’t realised until after that weekend, how close the connection is for me, between love and pain. And how much I need that sense of conflict, to feel alive. Not just because of an addiction to the intensity of feelings; but also because for me, individuating is associated with a struggle. And if I’m not fighting then I fear ‘not being’, or simply ‘being someone else’.
This image of a ruined building illustrated one extreme of the tension I was feeling that weekend. The part of me that was in control was the self-destructive part that almost wanted to feel orphaned and lost; at home among the abandoned buildings. It was the part that saw in the figure in the video, a possible prefiguring of the direction and destination of my therapy – searching for a childhood dream, a safe and perfect home, and finding only a ruin at the end of the road. While that part was in control, another part felt as though I was being held under water. Blocked from surfacing, and blocked from expressing myself in any way, whether in words or in drawing. I’m not sure which came first – the feeling of drowning, or hearing the words in the song, “Where are you now? Atlantis, under the sea…..”. And occasionally, somewhere far deeper than just below the surface, a little voice pleaded with me to ‘fight for us’, but at that point, it was more than I could do.
This building reminded me of myself – the unfinished house – but it also reminded me of a dream. A dream that was a vivid metaphor of the other extreme of the tension I was feeling – a different vision of progress, of ‘becoming’ and of the end-point of therapy.
My mother opened the door to her new house on a hill, and I walked in. I felt puzzled, because she had always hated living in isolated locations, far from other people. Yet she had bought the house specifically because it would be mine one day, and because she knew how much I loved the sense of space, openness, freedom, and a view. In many ways, this was her house, but my space.
The large hallway was empty. She started to lead me through the house, going room by room; pale white walls and wooden floors everywhere; light streaming through the tall windows. Like the hallway, the first room was empty; except for a splash of green colour on the walls, a narrow band around half-way up the wall, all the way around. As if it were wrapping up the room from the inside, with a green ribbon. The next room had a chair, the one after that a table and chair. And as we walked through, each subsequent room had a little more furniture than the last, a few more splashes of pale green, either on the walls or in the furnishings. The rooms became richer without being overly luxurious; more abundant in comfort, in warmth, in depth and personality. They were an ever greater delight, and each one was flooded with light from outside.
The last room was on an upper floor – it was a living room. Deep sofas and cushions to sleep or dream on; bookcases from floor to ceiling; up a step onto a higher level, a grand piano, right next to double glass doors with a view onto the garden. And although it was a living room, alive with everything I could have wanted a room to be, at the same time there was a sense that it wasn’t a room to be lived in. It pointed to something beyond itself.
I walked to stand by the piano and I looked out of the double doors. A terraced garden stretched out before me, sloping down the hill for as far as I could see. It was full – if that word can be used of a garden. It was lush and wild and exotic, rather than neat and ornamental. There were trees and bushes and flowers and a sheer abundance of bright green that went on forever. It felt as though life was out there, and it was beautiful, and overwhelming; exciting, and sad. I started to cry – happiness mixed with something else. My mother put her arms around me and we hugged silently; some part of me was aware of the fact that we hadn’t been close like this, for a very long time.
Some dreams live on in your mind like memories***. Some dreams need no explanation. For me, that dream was another sort of prefiguring – of a very different sort of therapy journey, and a very different kind of ending. One that points beyond itself to life, rather than clinging on to decay.
**Stunning drone footage of Rummy quarry can be found here on Youtube (particularly for those with a taste for danger, there is footage of diving from the top of the ruined buildings)
***I could find no images to do this dream justice – either images similar to that last room, or to the garden beyond it. The image I have included is the best free image that I could find, but it would almost have been better not to include one at all and, like the garden, to leave it to your imagination. There is almost more wrong with it, than there is right. It it too ‘tidy’, too much of a blank canvas rather than an illustration of a life. But it has light, a piano, and a glimpse of a garden beyond…..]
[Warning – liberal use of the ‘f’ word, though purely for artistic purposes…..]
This is a landscape of parts – a landscape of me. We all have them – inner children, inner teenagers, inner parents – I’m just getting a little more acquainted with mine. Some of them are two sides of the same coin, like the terrible teenage twins; some tend to go hand in hand, like the ‘flat one’ who doesn’t feel much and ‘the scathing one’ who just invalidates those who do. I’m aiming to develop the ‘me’ in the middle – but I really don’t have a clear idea of who that is yet.
During and after my last therapy session I was way over on the left – and somehow this picture became my way of trying to process and understand that, while also attempting to keep the terrible teenage twins at bay.
If this all seems a little strange – well, it does to me too. Being part(y) to the conversations in my head is one thing – representing them by coloured blobs – “why are you drawing clouds?” my husband asked – is another. I hope someone finds it useful. Or at least mildly interesting. Perhaps someone will look at this and think, “phew, I am not alone”. In which case, no you’re not, in more than one way, it seems…..