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.
At the end of my last therapy session my therapist suggested that I go home and draw a tree. But I cannot draw her a tree.
This followed on from a discussion in which I’d told her that I had been surprised by the strength of my desire, at various points over the last few months, to express myself in pictures rather than words. These periods tended to coincide with times when I found it particularly difficult to write, and also with times when I was more dominated by one or other of my ‘inner parts’. These periods were also very frustrating as I have never been competent or confident about drawing, and I felt completely incapable of giving my feelings visual expression.
We talked about the fact that the aim was not to create the perfect painting, and the quality of the output was not the point of the exercise. I could draw a tree, and I could bring it to her and we could talk about it. Drawing a tree seems perfectly simple, and I understand the idea that it doesn’t need to be a particularly good picture. However, when I imagine drawing a tree, this happens.
Almost immediately, I need my tree to be more than a tree. I cannot just draw a picture of a tree – or I don’t want to. What would be the point? All of a sudden I want my tree to be a metaphor, to convey so much more than ‘tree-ness’ – whatever that is. I want my tree to be about something. I want it to be about therapy, and the relationship between me and my therapist. I want it to be about how she both grounds me and nourishes my growth, and also inspires me to let my imagination take me where it will, like the roots of a tree spreading out in all directions. I want some of the tree branches to resemble weeping willows, falling heavily towards the ground. I want others to reach upwards and delight in finding the sun. I want the weeping branches to be like hair falling down around my shoulders, and I want other branches to be like arms and hands placed gently on that hair. I want there to be a face, barely discernible, peering out from behind the hair, and a million little tributary-like branches, coming off the tree-arms reaching to the sky. I want the two sides of the tree to be definitely but imperceptibly leaning in towards each other, though also seeming to pull in two different directions. And I want there to be simultaneously both a noticeable difference in the colour palette of the two sides, but also a seamless blending and fitting in together. I want the reaching branches to stand out vividly but softly against their backdrop, and I want the weeping branches to be slightly out of focus, but jarring at the same time.
Now, my artistic skills being what they are, if I cannot produce an ordinary looking tree, how can I produce the tree that I have just described? And if I try to simply draw a tree, just an ordinary tree…..well, I know that part of the point of the exercise is to talk about it. But then, it isn’t really just a tree, is it? It’s a seeming-tree, or a telling-tree, and then we’re back to metaphor and right back where we started.
I cannot draw her a tree. And so I wrote her this tree, instead.
Illustration by Paul Howard, from Jill Tomlinson’s ‘The otter who wanted to know’
“As for me, I implore fate to give me the chance to see beyond myself, and truly meet someone” – from ‘The Elegance of the Hedgehog’, by Muriel Barbery
Things have changed. It feels so strange, on one level. In another way things are much the same – work, school, tantrums (sometimes mine), birthday parties, after school activities, deadlines, arguments, tears, depression, anxiety, therapy. Therapy. Therapy has changed. And it doesn’t work pretending that it hasn’t, because part of what has changed is a deeper level of awareness. I can’t pull the wool over my new ‘inner eye’; my subconscious can’t trip me up quite as much because I have my own little ‘spy’ in there – this new, more grown-up part of me that knows my internal characters and the wily ways of the ones who like to steer me into trouble.
But sometimes the more grown-up me still gets side-lined. When I saw you for the first time after our six and a half week therapy break, I came in with less hostility than I had been expecting, given how cut-off from you I’d been feeling over the last few days, but still with a hefty amount of defensiveness. I resented the lack of an email to reassure me before we met up again; and the fact that I’d had to cope alone for so long.
I brought you a few small things from my holiday, but if I was hoping they would help to re-establish a connection, the attempt felt flat, and I wondered if you minded what I’d done. We had a conversation about the latter part of the therapy break, and why it was so difficult, and the conversation was…….okay. You talked, though nowhere near as much as I wanted you to. I talked, though nowhere near as honestly as I could have done. And when I left it was with an oppressive, despairing and enraged sense that if we were going to re-establish a connection, I was going to have to do the work all by myself. The session was ‘business as usual’, but I had wanted it to be ‘unusual’, and to explicitly recognise what I’d done in managing to get through the break fairly positively (on the whole). You were amazing in all the ways you helped me to prepare for and cope with the break; I wanted you to ‘go the extra mile’ in welcoming me back, too. I wanted to know that I was wanted. That you were glad to see me back. That you missed me – of course you wouldn’t tell me as much, but perhaps there would be something in something that you said or did, that would let me know.
By the time I got home the anger was consuming me. I was desperate to draw a picture of it, but I can’t draw. Instead I ‘doodled words’ onto a piece of paper: ‘I hate you’, ‘sometimes I never want to see you again’, ‘you feel cold’, ‘you made no attempt to reconnect with me after the break’, ‘get the fuck out’, ‘time to shut the vulnerability the fuck away…….’. And in small writing, in a couple of the corners, where a part of me was dying to get out and make herself heard, I wrote: ‘I love you’, ‘I’m desperate to reconnect with you’, and ‘I want things to go back to how they were’. Then I sent you a couple of one-line emails; I asked whether it was okay to us the ‘f’ word in session. Implication – I want to use the ‘f’ word in session. Passive aggressive communication – I want to convey how f***ing mad I am with you right now.
When I came back to session the next day, I brought my doodles with me. I felt anxious about showing them to you, but the mood from the day before had definitely shifted. I talked about the traffic; it broke the ice. And then I said that I was really sorry about the emails I had sent you, and you just smiled and asked who sent them. I loved that question – somehow, it simultaneously told me that all was okay and that you understood that different parts of me were trying to communicate with you, and it also validated those voices and their feelings. And so I handed over the doodles straight away and explained that she sent the emails – the one who drew those words and wrote ‘I hate you’. Though I couldn’t really bear to look at you while you looked at them, I could tell that all was well – that you were warm, interested and perhaps a little amused; certainly not upset or cross. And I knew that I’d now definitely crossed over into more adult mode – which also meant completely vulnerable and trusting mode, and that the conflict, such as it was, was effectively over.
It feels simultaneously pathetic, extraordinary, wonderful, moving and frightening, that my negative and defensive response to a forty-six day therapy break lasted one day. ONE DAY. One day is a change – a massive change. And much as I hated you for not ‘doing something’ to actively help me to feel better when we saw each other again, and much as I resented the fact that I would need to do all the hard work of reconnection on my own – you must be lovingly laughing, just a little, at the fact that ‘new mother‘ was right. Because in fact, as you’d already told me, we were still very much connected even if I couldn’t feel it, and the hard graft (as I called it a dejected ‘tweet’) was over very quickly. I’m sure I will be back in that angry, hating and ‘stuck’ place again at some point in future – I should really find out what the answer to my question about the ‘f’ word is, just in case…..But it feels staggering that the second and third sessions back felt just like the wonderfully connected sessions before the break.
When I think back to previous therapy breaks and the days and days, and weeks and weeks it sometimes took to ‘recover’……what a change. In the past, I would have come in with the same resentful attitude in the first session after the break, and gone home with the same feeling that you had done nothing to help me reconnect. I would have felt misunderstood and unheard but I would have felt too polite or too worried or too angry to say anything. And so we would have gone on, session after session, with me feeling further and further away from you, and more and more upset at not being heard, and yet trying to ‘carry on regardless’ while numbing myself against the pain of doing so. Until at some point the hurt would have become unbearable and I would have reached emotional meltdown. I would have needed you to ‘rescue’ me (and our relationship); and through the process of repairing the rupture and seeking reassurance that we were still okay, I would have – eventually – come to feel connected to you again. Perhaps it was only in being able to really see the process of repair in action, and to see the threads being rebuilt (on my side, even if they were intact on yours), that I could really believe that they were holding us together.
There are so many differences now, but what underlies them all, is a lack of fear. When I keep that more ‘adult me’ in the driving seat, then all these things are true. I am not afraid of you, or of you hurting me. If you do hurt me I’m not afraid of what it means or of whether it will happen again. I’m not afraid that you will judge me or change how you think about me. I’m not afraid of you misunderstanding me, and if you do misunderstand me, I’m not afraid it means you don’t care or weren’t paying attention. I’m not afraid of how you will react to something I say or do, and I’m not afraid that I might do or say ‘the wrong thing’ or that I might hurt you or upset you in some way.
I love you but I’m no longer trying to play the guardian all the time – either of my heart or yours. I’m no longer holding back from saying certain things in case you ‘don’t respond well’ and I get hurt; or in case I offend you, upset you, or cause you pain. Instead, I think that if we trust each other we also know that we do not want to hurt each other. And if we hurt each other we can talk about it and things will not be irretrievably (or even moderately) broken. Nothing will have changed because of it, except for an opportunity having been gained and a memory having been created, of working things through and feeling closer at the end of it.
I trust you, and I no longer see that as the one-dimensional concept it always was to me in the past. I no longer think it is about discretion, and keeping a confidence, and the safety of knowledge and information in the hands of another. Now I trust you with me , and not just with ‘stuff about me’; and that’s such a radical departure from what that word has ever meant to me in the past, that I cannot conceive of applying it, in that form, to anyone else at the moment, though I know that that’s one of the eventual aims of our work.
Things have changed, and I see it in the little things now that we’re together again, as well as in the ‘big thing’ of the speed of recovery after the break. I see it in my willingness to share my hate-filled doodles; in my lack of hesitation in telling you if I don’t want to change direction or topic in session, or that I do; in my openness in telling you if you’ve misinterpreted something I’ve said. I see it in the way I tell you what I’ve been thinking or feeling not in two sessions’ time or over email the next day, but in the moment or in a few moments’ time. I see it in the way I haven’t come with a written list of things to talk about, in many many weeks; and if we meander far from where our conversation started, I don’t feel anxious, I just look for the deeper reason why we ended up where we did, because I’m sure there is a reason.
Not for the first time over the last few days, I’m sitting here thinking that you make me happy; our relationship makes me happy, and happiness is not a feeling that has been much a part of my life, for the last few years. I feel as though by looking deep within myself, with your help, I’ve seen beyond myself and truly met someone. Two someones. Thank you. And thank you for the things that have changed. I can see them more clearly, now that we’re together again.
Last week I posted the link to the ‘twitter story’ containing the daily tweets from the first half of my summer therapy break; I talked about why I started to tweet about the break, and how it had helped.
The (long!) summer therapy break is now over, and this is the link to the twitter story from the second half of that break:
In my most recent ‘Memory Monday’ post, I mentioned the fact that the final third of the therapy break was much more difficult than the first two-thirds. I think there are a number of reasons for that. The first is sheer duration – I managed to stay feeling connected to my therapist for almost the entirety of the initial four weeks, with hardly any internal conflict or negative thoughts about her. This was very different to how things had been in the past, and it was a long time to be able to maintain both a peaceful ‘internal world’ and this close alliance (even at a distance), with my therapist. I think the reasons for that ability are all encapsulated in the series of posts I wrote in July and August, on my ‘new experience of mother‘. Having succeeded to ‘hold on’ to my therapist and also to the sense of harmony between my ‘inner parts‘ for four weeks, there simply came a point where it was just ‘a bit too much’. It was too much of a strain, and the cracks started to show. And once they had appeared, it became difficult to contain their spread and to limit their effect.
A second factor that had an impact was that my therapist went abroad for the final third of the therapy break, to visit friends. Somehow I found that much harder to deal with; both because of the greater physical distance between us and the sense of ‘being left behind’, but also because the sense of exclusion I feel when I cannot be a part of her life, is heightened in some ways when it comes to friendships. As described in my post on ‘Being excluded from your therapist’s life‘, I think this is because were I anyone other than a therapy client, a friendship with her is something that would be an option (whereas I am not and could never be, a family member), and the ‘cruelty’ of that option being outside the boundary of what is permissible, is something I feel particularly keenly. Keenly enough, that it started to chip away at my sense of connection with my therapist, and to allow feelings of resentment (about a whole range of issues, including the break and the impossibility of friendship) to creep in.
Finally, a major trigger towards the very end of the break resulted in a big ‘regression’ to how I used to feel in almost all previous therapy breaks. I temporarily, but fairly comprehensively, lost the ability to retain a sense of being kept in mind, of being cared for, and of being connected to my therapist. In ‘A new experience of mother – Part 5‘, I spoke about the interplay between the relationship between the different parts of me, and the relationship between me and my therapist. Those two relationships affect each other, and the complete breakdown in my own sense of who I was (and accompanying feelings of dissociation/depersonalisation), also led to a sense that my therapist was ‘a stranger’, that I didn’t know who she was, and that I was cut off from her. When the heightened agitation of this state did eventually die down, the ‘self’ that was left in the driving seat was an angry, rebellious and destructive persona, rather than the new growing, nurturing persona, who had steered me through the first four weeks of the break.
As indicated at the end of the twitter story, my return to therapy was (predictably) tough – and a story for another day! But I’ve had two sessions since resuming, and the good news is that they were very different to each other and last night I felt more peaceful inside than I have done for many days. A great deal changed in the twenty four hours from the end of session one to the end of session two, and that in itself is indicative of progress, and of how things have developed in the last few months. As my therapist said in that second session, we are in a different place to where we were a few months ago; and when I look back, I can see that everything that’s happened over the last six and a bit weeks, is testament to that.
Thank you so much to everyone who supported me in a whole range of different ways during the therapy break – it was important to me, and comforting to know that you were following my journey 🙂
Tomorrow I resume therapy after a forty five day break. I have no idea what it will feel like, either before, during or after the session. As is often the case, I have run numerous ‘scenarios’ through my head, of the opening few minutes. Few of those scenarios, I have to admit, are positive. In a way, that’s fitting – in the sense that the most positive scenario would be to turn up without an agenda or a plan, and simply open up about whatever is on my mind. The difficulty with scenarios is that they impede creativity and spontaneity, and they create expectations which lead to disappointment when they aren’t met, and when things don’t play out as imagined. In addition, when imagining sessions I have to play two parts – my therapist’s part, and mine. But I’m not her, and so I’m only ever really imagining me, in two different ‘chairs’ and with two different personas. And I can control ‘me’ – to some extent -but I cannot control what her responses to me will be. And so her ‘failure to follow the script’ leads to yet another disappointment and a feeling of being misunderstood.
Just over a year ago, I found myself unexpectedly in some incredibly painful ground shortly after resuming therapy. I ended up talking about my own past losses (the death of close relatives), and this also led into a discussion about the end of therapy, my therapist’s eventual retirement, and – hopefully far in the future – the death of my therapist. This post was written the day I found out that she planned to retire in a different part of the country:
Not something I had ever thought about before (I think I had just assumed she would stay in the same city and the same house), it came as a huge shock, and I found it incredibly upsetting. The idea of walking or driving past her house and her not being there, was unthinkable. Given the subject matter of our sessions at the time, my mind also turned to death; the thought of not being able to easily visit a grave or memorial for her, was very painful.
I’m hoping that when I return to therapy tomorrow, this will not be what it will feel like, after. But I’m anxious. The last third of the break has been nowhere near as positive as the first two-thirds. I have felt nowhere near as connected to my therapist as I did before. Negative, defensive and resistant thoughts have been much more common. And in the last few days, a major trigger which threw me into internal chaos, also seems to have completely driven my ‘internal ally‘ (and my therapist’s ally too) underground. Or rather, it gave the more troublesome parts of me the opportunity they were looking for to launch the expected (and yet simultaneously surprising), ‘end of therapy break sabotage and attack’.
And so I have no idea what it will feel like after. But I’m hoping, I’ really hoping, it won’t be this.
I am now five and a half weeks into a six and a half week therapy break; at the very start, when I was feeling unusually determined and enthusiastic about putting some ‘strategies’ in place (!), I decided to keep a Twitter diary of the break and tweet at least once a day using the hashtag #therapybreak. There are 46 days in this therapy break (including the day of my last session in July and the first session in September), and when I got to Day 22 I used Storify to create a record of the tweets from the first half of the break. The Story can be found here:
I hadn’t set out to tweet in this way during a therapy break before, and I found it helpful; for one thing, it meant I had to think a little on some days, to decide what to pick out for my daily tweet. This focused my mind on moments I was grateful for; on aspects which had been positive in an otherwise less positive day; and it helped me to think further about the difficult times, and to try and resolve to turn things around. The support I received in response to tweets when things were going less well was very encouraging and also made a difference – thank you so much to those who responded!
When I started the daily tweets it was also in the hope that I might find the result encouraging to look back on, particularly leading up to future breaks. I hope that will be the case; and more immediately, the tweets will certainly help me to ‘scrapbook’ my therapy break. Though there is so much I need to talk to my therapist about once we resume sessions, that my idealistic idea of us looking through it together during the first session back, may well fall by the wayside!
I will publish the link to my #therapybreak tweets from the second half of the break (Day 23 to Day 46) next week, when the break is over and I have resumed sessions….
I wrote this poem last August when I was abroad during my summer therapy break, and posted it with a very brief introduction, in September 2015. As I wrote in that introduction: I felt my therapist’s absence even more keenly due to the physical distance, and these words just came into my mind one day, as I thought of her. The concept of a house or a home as a metaphor for therapy arose quite early in my time with her, and it is a metaphor that has often appeared within my dream imagery as well”.
At this time, my therapist is the one who is abroad (rather than me), and once again I am feeling her absence more keenly due to the physical distance. And even more keenly still as she is the one who is ‘away’, and I am the one ‘left behind’. I think the feeling is exacerbated by the fact that around me adults are preparing to go back to work after being on leave; children are excited (or not!) to be going back to school; and those in therapy are, by and large, resuming sessions with their therapists. I feel fear and dread over the recommencement of the ‘old’ routine’ of work and school; the feeling of being trapped, and of living at a frenetic pace and feeling constantly on a knife edge. I am glad that my therapist is having what I hope will be a restful break with good friends; but over the last week or so the adult part of me that wants her to have this break, has been alternating with the parts of me that simply resent it. And though I wish it weren’t the case, right now my ‘better self’ has given way to a sulky sense of ‘enough already‘.
And so I wanted to re-post this poem both as a reminder to myself that I am not alone and will be ‘home’ soon (in a week’s time); and also as a reminder to all those who are about to resume therapy, that however scary and uncertain it may feel, particularly if this is your first summer break, you are about to find your ‘safe place’ again, and I’m thinking of you as you embark on another ‘therapy-year’, and all that it may bring!
[As an aside, it was only when I was looking through the photos on my phone a few days ago, and saw a picture of the front of my therapist’s house, with her blue door, that I suddenly realised that the door in the picture which I chose to use as the background to my poem, is blue as well. I can honestly say that that was not in my mind at the time, and it was not why I consciously chose the picture – though looking back on it now it’s almost impossible not to think that I was drawn to it at least partly because it reminded me of my therapist’s house….]