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.
What follows is a bridge – a bridge between the ‘new mother’ relationship between the parts of myself described in Part 1 of ‘A new experience of mother‘, and the ‘new mother’ relationship between me and my therapist, which I will talk about in Part 3. This bridge is a post that I wrote last weekend, but never published. I didn’t publish it because I realised as I wrote it, that it was coming from a ‘teenage’ place of resentment and that it was an indirect means of communicating with my therapist. As sometimes happens, my thoughts and understanding were working themselves out in the very process of writing; and what I understood was that the post was serving the function of repeating old patterns. It was self-sabotaging, and it was also passive aggressive. And as I’ve realised since, I think it was also an unconscious attempt to show my therapist how it feels (by creating similar emotions within her) to have your hands tied and to have no choice – about a therapy break (in my case), or about not being able to respond to a cry for help (in hers).
This is what I wrote:
“I’m meant to be practising.
In two weeks begins a 45 day therapy break – my longest since I started with my current therapist almost three years ago. A few weeks ago we were in the middle of some very difficult and valuable material, and I was also discovering what it felt like for her to connect with different parts of me, and I wanted more. So my therapist very kindly offered to give me more – more time and more of that connection – in the form of an extra session per week in the run-up to the break, to hopefully better prepare me to get through it.
The extra session means that I now see her on a Friday and a Monday, and so the break over the weekend feels shorter. Given that, my therapist suggested that I try to get through the weekend without email, as a form of ‘practice’ for when she will be out of contact for large portions of the break.
The first couple of weekends without email were okay, and last weekend I made it through even though it followed on from an incredibly difficult and triggering week which resulted in an intense and distressing session on the Friday. I fought every urge to email, as well as a strong desire to self-harm. My mind fought feelings of hopelessness and thoughts of endings. The resentful and resistant part of me was in the driving seat, and yet drove past my therapist’s house. I’ve only done that once before but I had to close the distance between us, even momentarily. Somehow, the situation righted itself by the second session of the week; somehow I shook off the obscuring cloud of ‘past mother’, and the resentful part of me was just too plain exhausted to be resentful anymore. I found the more adult me again, and the sessions that resulted were honest, helpful and connected.
But yesterday I found myself stuck in and brought down by painful thoughts and feelings of exclusion – not unusual for me, in the face of a break, but more worrying given the length of time for which I will have to try and rationalise them away. And then a brief ‘argument’ and flare-up at home took me right back into the distressing feelings of the week before and it was a case of staving off the urge to self-harm again. I really, really wanted to email her. I didn’t, though I did reach out to a friend.
This morning I drove a few hours to see some friends and was either crying or fighting back tears for much of the way. The hopelessness and suicidal ideation were back. I really, really, really wanted to email her. I didn’t, though now I’m writing this. I’m speaking to her indirectly, though I don’t know if she will see it.
I don’t think she will like what I’m doing. I think she will see this as ‘acting something out’ rather than talking about it. I want to contact and connect with her but am doing it in a way that is guaranteed to mean she can’t respond. She doesn’t have a choice. I don’t want to disappoint her by not being able to get through without email, so I guarantee feeling like I’ve disappointed her, but in a different way.
I tried to rationalise emailing her by thinking that by doing so I would be giving myself a different experience of mother – one in which I wasn’t afraid of being judged or disapproved of. But I was too wary of the possibility that that might be just a convenient excuse, and couldn’t shake off the obscuring cloud of ‘past mother’ sufficiently to just go ahead and do it. And so instead of a different experience of mother I have guaranteed myself the same old experience all over again, at least in my head, if not in reality.
I want to put off fear and take up a different experience of mother, but I’m meant to be practising. I’m meant to be practising but I love her and part of me feels like I’m losing her early. I know I’m not losing her, and that’s what I’m meant to be practising holding on to.
I hate practising.”
By the time I finished writing, something had changed. The ‘teenage self’ was a little less in charge, the urge to ‘act out’ a little less strong. And after a struggle with myself I made the decision (quickly, before I could change my mind) to send my therapist an email with the post, instead of publishing it. I wrote: “Attached is a draft post, that probably shouldn’t be a post, at least not now (the reasons being obvious in the post, I think)….so I’m emailing it – which is not as good as managing to not email at all, but is at least more direct and honest than posting the post….I hope…”.
It was a leap of faith – an attempt to take hold of that possibility of a new experience of mother, and also a relinquishing of attempting to determine the way mother responds (even if that is by cutting off the possibility of a response altogether). It might have been a leap, but it wasn’t a leap into the dark; it wasn’t blind faith. I know her, as much as I can; after all the time we have spent and the work we have done together, I know that she is there not just to ‘catch me’ but also to ‘hold me’, metaphorically.
Usually when I write about literature, art, music or film that has made an impact upon me or inspired me in some way, I try to explain why. Usually, the context in which I encountered it, and the other things going on in my life and in therapy at the time, play a vital role in why the piece hit home, the way I interpreted it, and the significance I attached to it. But on this occasion, things are more complicated…..
I watched the film ‘Predestination’ in May, and it immediately became one of my top two or three favourite films – I wanted to watch it again as soon as it was over. My husband and I have quite different tastes but we’re both happy to watch thrillers and science fiction/fantasy. The description on the back of the ‘Predestination’ DVD therefore looked ‘suitable’ and was very similar to this paragraph, from www.rottentomatoes.com: “PREDESTINATION chronicles the life of a Temporal Agent (Ethan Hawke) sent on an intricate series of time-travel journeys designed to prevent future killers from committing their crimes. Now, on his final assignment, the Agent must stop the one criminal that has eluded him throughout time and prevent a devastating attack in which thousands of lives will be lost“.
Half an hour in, and my husband was rather regretting the choice of film, and I was absolutely riveted and completely drawn in. Towards the start of the film two characters meet in a bar, and one tells the other a story – a story about a baby girl left on the doorstep of an orphanage, and what happens to her as she grows up. There are flashbacks throughout the telling, and the telling does take up a considerable portion of the film. But the story and the telling are absolutely vital to the impact of what happens later on.
As this review by Ben Rawson-Jones points out, this is a film that benefits from a lack of advanced knowledge. You may work out the ending as you watch- there are certainly clues – but to say very much may well spoil your enjoyment. What I can say is that though the mind-bending time travel elements are fascinating, that is not the reason why I love this film. Aside from the fantastic acting by the female lead, Sarah Snook, I love this film because it is fundamentally a story about identity. In addition, the way in which the story unfolds had huge resonances for me, with the process of therapy, and in particular with the point I was at in my own therapy story. To try and explain any more about ‘the plot’ and about why the film was so important to me, would give away vital components; and so all I can do is encourage you to see it for yourself!
At some stage I will write a fuller post about this – with an obvious spoiler alert up front! But in the meantime, I wanted to whet your appetite with the following quotes from reviews (and how can you resist a movie described as solipsistic?!):
“Questions of identity infuse the intricately plotted Predestination, a smart sci-fi thriller that packs a powerful emotional punch thanks to its sensitive treatment of emotive themes and an incredible, multi-layered performance from Sarah Snook.” Ben Rawson-Jones
“Don’t expect car chases or crowd scenes. The Spierigs — German boys, Michael and Peter (they made Daybreakers) — keep things moody and intimate. This is a deeply solipsistic movie, but how deep is something you’ll need to find out for yourself”. David Edelstein
[For those with an interest in science fiction, the film is based on a (very) short story by Robert A. Heinlein called ‘All You Zombies’. Heinlein was a leading science fiction writer and the book (and film) have nothing to do with zombies, though the phrase is part of a quote by the lead character towards the end of the book, and in that context, its use is interesting….]
I could never have guessed, a few years ago, that my process of recovery would involve becoming aware of the different ‘parts’ or voices inside me, getting to know them better and understanding where they come from, and developing a dialogue with them. It still feels like a somewhat strange thing to be doing – but I can no longer doubt its benefits or the impact it is having. And my therapist seems to believe this is an important step for me to have taken as well and is encouraging me to foster these internal relationships and to use them for support – and I trust her judgment.
I have written about the change, over the last few months, in the way that I perceive and relate to my ‘inner child’; and about the fact that I have started to have internal conversations with her, to recognise when she is present and when she needs something, and to think about how those needs might be met. But perhaps an even bigger breakthrough happened more recently, when I connected with the ‘inner teenager’ for the first time.
In the past, this part of myself has been synonymous with resistance, defiance, resentment and anger. Underlying all of that is enormous fear and a desperate desire to be loved; but the historic need to be strong, to push others away, and to avoid being vulnerable and being hurt, tends to win out over the need for acceptance and love. Or at least, the need for acceptance and love tend to come out in rather destructive ways, both in terms of how I treat myself, and how I treat others. Getting through to that ‘inner teenager’ has felt impossible – I have no idea how to help her feel better and it has felt as though she sees me as a threat and wants nothing to do with me. Moreover, it feels as though she resents the new-found alliance between me and the ‘inner child’. She tends to be the one who has a natural inclination towards fighting; and so I seem to spend a great deal of time ‘battling her’ and her influence, in my mind. These thought-battles, that I have written about before, can be incredibly draining, particularly during the fiercest onslaughts which tend to happen either when I am making good progress in therapy, or during a therapy break.
But a few weeks ago, a strange thing happened. I had an internal conversation with my inner teenager in which I swore at her. She ‘shouted at me’ about a couple of things over which I (and others) had absolutely no control, and I responded back, ‘what the f*** would you like me to do about that’? Admittedly, this is not normally an advisable way of building good relationships, and you could argue that it was more than a little unsympathetic! But she was expressing her sadness about a particular situation through being angry with me, which did not really give me an opportunity to validate the sadness itself. My own response was not angry, but rather somewhat tongue-in-cheek; a challenge rather than an attack.
The interaction unfolded completely spontaneously. It was utterly unplanned but in hindsight it served a very important purpose – it showed the ‘inner teenager’, quite clearly, that I am not my mother. My mother strongly disapproves of swearing, it’s not ‘how she brought me up’. And so I had the impression that I’d stopped the teenage anger in its tracks by using shock tactics and the element of surprise. The anger dissolved into ‘internal giggles’, if such a thing is possible, and the point about who I was – or wasn’t – was made.
It was this experience that helped me to realise that it was difficult to get through to this part of me, because she saw me in the way that I see my own mother. As far as this part of me was concerned, I and my mother were one. Unlike the inner child who lacked a certain amount of life experience and was still willing to be trusting, the teenager was carrying many of the distressing experiences that have at least partly led to where I am today. She was carrying the un-felt grief, the emotional invalidation, the anger, the intrusion, the need for distance but also for a different kind of love; and she was the one who learned to put up walls in the first place. The more ‘adult’ version of me that is developing in therapy is to all intents and purposes a newcomer on the scene, still weak and vulnerable in many ways. The ‘inner teenager’ can be forgiven for thinking that this grown-up is as incapable of dealing with her own emotions and protecting others from them, or is as incapable of helping the teenager to feel better, as my own mother was. However, as soon as this part of me was able to see me differently, it became much easier for me to talk to her, and for her to hear me.
And it became easier for me to hear her too. I felt connected to someone vulnerable and loving, rather than fighting someone guarded and resentful. I became aware of how fearful she was of the upcoming summer therapy break – whereas until then she had tried to just ignore it. I tried to reassure her, as best I could. As I do with the ‘inner child’, I let her know that I’m there for her – but it’s my therapist’s presence she really wants and I find that my reassurances most often take the form of reminders that my therapist is still there, still cares, and still remembers. All parts of me need that reassurance and that reminder, and we all share in the comfort that it brings.
Connecting with the ‘inner teenager’ in this way, also gave her a voice – and a listening ear – in session. My therapist and I talked about the ‘inner conversation’ in such a way that it felt as though the teenager was really being attended to and spoken to. The session was powerful in a similar way to one before the Easter therapy break, which had involved connecting with the ‘inner child’. But it occurs to me now that the two sessions were also different; whereas the child was joyfully ‘filled up’ by the experience, the teenager was left immediately craving more. The experience was so good that there was a fierce need to repeat it, to ‘make up for a deficit’, as my therapist referred to it. I said to my therapist later, that it was the first time that the ‘teenager’ had come out during session. She kindly (and accurately) pointed out that it was the first time I’d realised that she had come out in session. I understood wryly that she was probably referring to the times I brought with me resentment, anger, games, and sarcasm; or to the times when I just plain shut her out in session.
I’ve had other ‘internal conversations’ since then, and I’ve discovered how much better, how much more peaceful my inner world is when the parts of me feel connected and allied together. The internal battle I’ve described before, dies down. I feel more at peace with myself.
My therapist has talked about the important task of re-parenting that I have – that I can do things differently when it comes to my own ‘inner parts’, and not simply repeat the experience I had when I was younger. That I can give those inner parts a new experience of mother. I feel I have been trying to do that, as best I can, but re-parenting doesn’t mean perfect parenting; and as well as comforting her, I have also let the inner teenager down over the last few weeks. On one occasion after an intense therapy session, the emotions of the younger parts of me felt too overwhelming, and I pushed them away. My dreams were filled with scenarios of being under attack and of bad mothering; in one dream I fled the scene of an explosion, leaving my children to find their own way out. For a few days the various parts of me went back to being strangers, each trying to deal (or not deal) with their own version of the pain. The resentment, the walls and the lack of trust returned; but we found our way back to each other a few days later.
The key to internal reconciliation was the interaction between me and my therapist – and another, different, vital new experience of mother.
I have only three memories of a close family member that I lost as a child, that I can be sure are my own memories and not recollections of photos I might have seen. One is a snapshot, nothing more than a moment, captured as if in a photograph; one is of a particular event; and one is a fragment of a dream – and so not really a memory at all – but at least I can be sure that it is mine.
We lived in neighbouring streets (this relative and I) and saw a great deal of each other over a number of years. But almost nothing remains of those experiences, save those three memories and some old photos. It seems bizarre, even given the passage of decades. It feels a little like science fiction – as though my memories must have somehow been wiped. It feels as though the memory gap needs some explanation – that this person was too significant for there to be hardly anything left.
The ‘snapshot’ is of them sitting at the head of the table at a family meal, possibly around Christmas time, wearing their wig after chemotherapy had taken all of their hair. The event was the time I brought a friend home from school and saw the look of horror on her face when she saw my relative’s skeletal looking frame – it was as if I was seeing the progression of their illness for the first time, through my friend’s eyes. As for the dream – it is the earliest one I can remember, perhaps even from pre-school years or no later than very early school years, and it was set in the gardens of the house we used to live in until I was five.
This is all I remember of the dream: my relative and I went through a side gate into the garden of the house where I used to live. At the bottom of the garden were some witches, stirring something in a large pot. It felt dangerous, and I knew we musn’t be seen. So we left, via the same side gate, though on the way back I remember that I was flying rather than walking, hovering in the air just over my companion’s head, so that we could both go out of the gate at the same time.
When I tell my therapist about my dreams, she always asks me what my associations are. With the passage of time (and subsequent familiarity with Macbeth!) the dream has become associated in my mind with the phrase ‘when shall we three meet again….’, but I couldn’t actually tell you how many witches were in my original dream, and I don’t know if that matters. I have a feeling I dreamed the dream again, when I was studying the play in senior school. As for the element of flying, this was a feature of the vast majority of my dreams growing up, and it was almost always used as a way of trying to escape when I was being chased. When my dreams of being chased started to become less frequent, so did my dreams of flying. I’ve experienced them again a couple of times in the last year or so, once again in the context of trying to get away from something.
I don’t know what the dream means – who the witches represent, or what the danger was that we were trying to get away from. But I’m glad I remember the dream, because it’s the only positive memory that I have of that family member, that isn’t tainted by illness or distress. Although the dream had its frightening aspects, what I remember most is a vague sense of comfort, togetherness, and protection. That my companion was trying to keep me safe, or that we were trying to keep each other safe. I don’t have any ‘real life’ memories of having their arms around me – and so that dream memory is the closest thing I have to a sense of being held by them.
Dreams are important, and as with events, perhaps we remember the most significant components of them; the parts that hold most meaning for us and that will serve us best in future, even if we don’t understand how. I don’t know how much I will remember of my therapy sessions, for example, in ten or twenty years’ time. I hope, a great deal – and this blog should help with that! But I am pretty confident that I will remember at least some of the dreams that I have had, that involve my therapist.
And so who knows, perhaps in time, the dream-memory of sitting down with my therapist at a breakfast table, simultaneously wondering how near it was appropriate to sit, whilst also glowing with a sense of wonderful closeness and companionship; may come to be an important part of how I remember her. It may turn out to be almost as much a source of comfort and connection as the memories of the time spent together in session. The dream may not recall a real event, but it was a product of real events and most importantly, real relationship, interwoven with my conscious and unconscious feelings.
I think the same is true of that earliest dream that I can remember, and perhaps the sense of ‘safety in togetherness’ in that dream, and the one of my therapist, is something that I need to remember. Not just as an antidote to the past, and the ‘danger’ and separation of death; but also as an anchor in the face of the ‘danger’ and separation of a longer-than-usual upcoming therapy break in a few weeks’ time. I will need all the resources I can muster to fend off self-sabotage and keep a sense of connection alive. But the beauty of a bank of ‘dream memories’, is that it can not only be drawn upon, but it can continue to grow – in presence, but also, wonderfully, in absence.