Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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


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The importance – and danger – of resistance in therapy

[Or, ‘When I realised how much therapy has helped me change – Part 4’]

After progress comes resistance. I’ve experienced it time and time again, both in little ways – a slip of the tongue during a session – and in big ways, such as those described below.

I’ve often read that resistance is at the core of psychotherapy – even that understanding it and working through it, is the treatment itself. I think the problem with that formulation is that doesn’t mention the primacy of the therapeutic relationship in doing that working through, and the fact that change happens through that relationship. Nevertheless, I can see why resistance is given such a prominent role – although it stands in the way of progress, neither can progress exist without it.

Resistance is the sub-conscious trying to protect itself from that which may overwhelm or hurt it. Progress means change, which goes hand in hand with greater openness and vulnerability. But many of us have spent years or decades closing off or pushing down those things we want least to address, and we have built sky-high walls and fortresses to protect ourselves. No wonder part of us fights so hard against any penetration of that barrier, and any letting in of light. The sub-conscious is powerful; the bigger the therapeutic change, the bigger the backlash and the assault upon us.

Resistance won’t always look or feel like resistance.  It can seem more like a benign friend, than an enemy – it can be so persuasive that it can fool us into believing that it is our ‘better self’ speaking. At other times it really can appear as ugly as it is  – but somehow we are irresistibly drawn to it anyway. It seems to be simply a mirror of how we see ourselves – with shame and disgust – and we fall into its arms because it is such a familiar place to be.

It laughs at me tonight, as I write this post. How easy it is to catch you out, it says. How easy it is to use your good feelings and security for cover, your writing and your research as bait, and to lead you into trouble. How ironic, it laughs, that writing about resistance should make you less resistant to it. Writing, I guess, is a kind of ‘summoning’ – and you don’t always know what words or feelings are going to answer the call.

***

A little over a year ago, there was a noticeable step-change in the progress I was making in therapy. Just before the Easter therapy break I started to feel a great deal more compassion towards myself than I had ever done before, and I experienced that in the form of a feeling of connection with my ‘inner child’ (who I had previously hated), and a much deeper sense of trust and connection with my therapist. The therapy break that followed was the first in which I managed to sustain that feeling of connection without it feeling like an exhausting daily battle against myself.

But the break was followed by the very distressing events described in my post ‘BPD as addiction’. Despite the progress I had made, part of me clung onto the cycle of rupture and repair that I was so used to; and onto the connection between love and pain that had previously made sense to me. It led my therapist to question whether she was really helping me, and it was an enormous wake-up call for me. However, the problem with a full-scale assault is that it’s not exactly subtle. My resistance could no longer trip me up from the side-lines; I had changed and raised the stakes too high. At least now I was self-aware enough to be able to see what I was dealing with.

***

More recently, I described another similar step-change when my therapist helped me to realise that I still sometimes kept her at arms’ length, and that I was engaging with her more in my imagination, than I was when we were face-to-face in session. I became absolutely determined that I would strive to allow her closer, and that I would try and stay present and engaged in session. I started to make some changes, including in how I thought and acted in relation to email outside session.

My determination to be vulnerable and engaged led to an intense session where I tried to get to grips with the content of a dream I’d had, in a way that I don’t think I have done before. Instead of just ‘reporting it’ to my therapist, I tried to let my mind wander onto what it made me think of, what it might connect to, what it brought to mind. What it brought to mind was a whole load of shame and anger, and those feelings traveled with me out of session, and made me want to destroy myself. Instead, almost without thinking – more as a distraction, initially, but then more as an obsession – I started another episode of ‘googling’ my therapist. It’s something I rarely do these days, and when I do, it is at times I feel less secure or more resistant.

This particular episode ended up being extremely distressing because I felt very strongly that it was a betrayal. Though I hadn’t been looking for it, my searching inadvertently resulted in me discovering something about her that, when I had once asked her a direct question about it, she had refused to tell me. It was big shock, and I stopped googling immediately; but the damage – in terms of how I felt about myself, and how I thought she would now feel about me – was done.

We worked through it in the next two sessions – she focused on trying to help me understand what had motivated me and why it had happened. She seemed less personally disturbed by the events, than I was afraid she would be. Though I felt very strongly that I deserved ‘punishment’, nothing like that was forthcoming. I had acted in a way that made me fear my therapist might be so upset or angry with me, that it could seriously jeopardize our therapeutic relationship and the ongoing work – which was presumably, as far as my resistance was concerned, the point. However, somehow I ended the week with a renewed determination to continue being open and engaged, despite what felt like an enormous step backwards and a clear incidence of self-sabotage.

But the beast is not so easily slayed, and the first session of the following week found me sitting in silence, feeling completely stuck, and unable to speak. I wanted – really, really wanted – to carry on as I had done in the session where I spoke about my dream. I wanted to talk, to grapple with my difficulties, to free-associate. I wanted to work together with my therapist, to feel close to her. Instead, she felt far away and I felt empty of material. She encouraged me to try and tolerate not knowing what to say, and to wait and see what came up, whereas I desperately wanted her to do something or say something to help me move forward. I couldn’t tolerate the waiting; and that re-opened the door to the wolf in sheep’s clothing.

***

This time, I thought I was helping, not destroying myself. This time, I thought I had the upper hand – over myself. I should have become suspicious when that somehow turned into something like wanting to have the upper hand in therapy, or at least to try and influence the way my therapist interacted. I did what I used to do in the first couple of years of sessions, when I felt I didn’t really know how the process worked or what I was doing – I read a book about therapy. I had stopped doing this as much, when my therapist pointed out it would be helpful to focus on my own unique therapeutic journey, rather than on the tales of others. It’s too easy to start seeing yourself in the stories of others, and to get drawn down a path that isn’t truly your own.

However, I picked up another Irvin Yalom, and was particularly struck by the story of a resistant patient, mired in grief, who tried to show Yalom how he was failing to see her and engage with her grief, by giving him a long poem to read that she felt mirrored their therapeutic struggle. As soon as I finished reading the story, I emailed my therapist and asked her to read it, because I was hoping we could discuss it. About an hour later I realised with a very great deal of embarrassment that I had simply repeated what I had read – I had sent my therapist something to read that I felt mirrored what we were going through.

Nevertheless, I persisted in talking about it at my next session, in a way that I was afraid would sound rather critical – which, indeed, it did. My motivation, however, at least so far as I was conscious of it, was a positive one, and I felt well-intentioned and still connected to my therapist. I thought that I was simply trying to figure a way out of the ‘stuckness’ so that I could carry through my determination to engage more with her in session. I didn’t see the problem, at the time, of the fact that my strategy seemed to involve telling her she didn’t always engage with me. I tried to emphasize the fact that it wasn’t that I wanted her to be a different sort of therapist to the one she was; what I simply wanted was more of the times when I felt she ‘got her hands dirty’, and ‘gave more’. I think to myself now, and I say to my own self of only a couple of weeks ago: if you want to know whether resistance is at play, look at who it is you are asking to change – however good the reasons might seem.

***

I am back on track in therapy – but the beast is always biting at my heels. Resistance, thy name is bloodhound, terrier, shape-shifter, chameleon. Sometimes you use tools that are well-worn and sure-fire winners; other times you come up with something new and entirely unexpected. I would enjoy your creativity if you weren’t such a ravenous and soul-destroying bitch.

There is a saying in popular culture – “Resistance is futile”. Futile can mean pointless, but resistance always has a point – it is its own end-point. But futile can also mean ‘fruitless’, and resistance, if it cannot be worked through and becomes its own end-point, can rob therapy of the fruit of its labours. Ultimately, we are in therapy to change, whether in major ways or minor ones. For some of us, the change could be so big that the quality – if not the outward appearance – of our life after therapy, can be radically different. And so it is, that:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live, and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.” *

 

* quote by Steven Pressfield

 

 

 


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Yoga, internal parts, and therapy

In an article for the therapy website welldoing.org back in January, I wrote about the ways in which Yin yoga supports my therapy. As well as the physical and emotional benefits of a yoga practice, I mentioned that for me personally, yoga was also an opportunity to ‘catch-up’ with the ‘parts of myself’, or my internal ‘personas’. I find that though my mind doesn’t tend to wander onto the events of the day or onto my to-do-list for the coming week, it does drift off into ‘daydreams’ (or ‘yoga imaginings’ as I call them when I discuss them with my therapist). Those ‘imaginings’ tend to centre on my various internal characters, and rather than being elaborate stories, they are often only a simple set of images or interactions, often wordless.

Like dreams, I have found them fascinating to try and interpret, and also like dreams, they seem to offer insight into how I am feeling, and in particular, how I am feeling about therapy and the therapeutic relationship. I find it fascinating how my ‘imaginings’ have changed over time – but rather than changing gradually, there have been significant key differences or step-changes at particular points in time, which reflect the deepening of my therapeutic relationship and the changes that are occurring within me.

There have been three key developments in my ‘yoga imaginings’ that I have identified since I started yoga in September, the most recent of which happened only last weekend. It used to be that the only protagonists of these scenarios or images, were my internal parts, which interacted with each other. But then, on one occasion when my inner child was crying alone in the snow, next to the unfinished house described in this post (which symbolises my ‘self’ and my therapy being a ‘work in progress’), my therapist appeared in the picture, took off her blue cardigan, and put it around my inner child’s shoulders, to comfort her. Since then, the figure of my therapist has almost always been part of these imaginings, and I have taken that as a reflection of the way in which I am internalising her and am able to hold onto a connection with her – who is both my ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ therapy-mother – when we are apart.

The second change occurred within the last month, and followed on closely from the incidents described in my post ‘When I realised how much therapy has helped me change’ (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3). Rather than visualising my ‘internal parts’, I found myself gazing internally at a picture of ‘adult me’ standing on a beach and looking out to sea. The air and water were calm, but in the far distance, a storm was brewing. I called out for my therapist, and she came to join me. She took my hand and we looked out at what was to come, together. I said that I was scared, and she said that she was with me. It felt significant to me, that this was the first time that ‘adult me’ had appeared in the picture, and the first time therefore that my therapist’s interaction was with that developing part of me, rather than with a younger or a more resistant aspect. Given the deep trust I have felt recently in therapy, and the strong determination to be open and vulnerable and to engage more fully, this change in my ‘yoga imaginings’ made complete sense, and acted almost like validation or verification of what was taking place both within me, and during sessions.

And then last weekend I was taken by surprise by the third change, which occurred in the form of a spontaneous ‘internal comment’. Over the last few months, four characters in particular have been dominant in my internal world and imaginings. Three of those characters feel like ‘core elements’ of myself; one has felt like an aspect that I needed to ‘win over’ and integrate in some way. That fourth character is the ‘I-don’t-care’ part of myself – the defensive, resistant part that comes to the surface to defend me and cut me off from pain and from attachment. I’ve known for a while that she is ‘problematic’ and gets in the way of me feeling my feelings and being vulnerable or authentic, but I always used to think that somehow I just needed to ‘give her a heart’ and win her over.

It was a complete surprise, therefore, when, during one of my yoga poses at the weekend, she tried to enter the picture where the other three characters were present, and they said to her “you have no place here”. It felt like a bizarre type of free-association, because it seemed as though it came out of nowhere and completely flew in the face of what I thought I was aiming to do with the more resistant parts of myself. My therapist has long spoken about keeping them at bay, but previously I was always wary of that, as it didn’t feel right to ignore them or to stave them off. However, when other aspects of myself told that part of me that she had ‘no place here’, it felt right, somehow. A little sad, maybe, but right. Again, it felt very much as though this development was a reflection of the changes I was trying to make in terms of being more engaged and vulnerable in therapy, and not keeping my therapist at arms’ length.

I’m looking forward to discovering what else my ‘yoga imaginings’ have to tell me! I don’t think this is quite what my yoga teacher has in mind when she talks us through poses during the classes, but it’s an invaluable part of my practice, and a helpful, motivating, and validating adjunct to my therapy…..


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Book pre-review: When Marnie was there

I was going to say ‘no blog post from me this weekend’ – but of course, this is a blog post! I am taking the night off from writing, so that I can spend it reading. Not just for pleasure, though it will be that – but for therapy.

The book I will be reading is a children’s book called ‘When Marnie was there’, by Joan G Robinson. The reason I am reading it is because I read it once, and it has never left me.

Before I tracked down an old copy on Amazon, I remembered nothing about it except that I read it somewhere between the ages of eight and eleven, it had the name ‘Marnie’ in the title, and it was frightening. I couldn’t have told you what the story was about, save that I knew there was something about it that was scary and disturbing. Not in a way that put me off reading it, or gave me nightmares. But in a way that left a deep and lasting impression, but in a completely indescribable way. I cannot explain to you what it is that makes me absolutely sure the book was significant and settled somewhere deep in my psyche and in my whole being – leaving me only with a memory of what it felt like to read it, or rather what it felt like to have read it. I have no memories so concrete as of actually reading it.

I know that deep down I have always wanted to go back and re-read it – and I remembered only as much as was needed, in order to ensure that I could find it again. And luckily there appear to very few books with ‘Marnie’ in the title! Though I know I never forgot it, I cannot honestly say I thought about it very much (if at all) until a few years ago. I think that over the last few years, either because of having children, or more likely, because of the process of therapy, the book has come to mind on a number of occasions. My therapist and I have often talked about children’s books; and I have found them (and children’s films) invaluable sources of comfort and support during therapy breaks, particularly the long summer break. I have found that they often convey simply and powerfully, important life lessons that we need to learn and keep with us, but that as adults we have somehow forgotten how to internalize – if we ever knew.

I have always wanted to go back and re-read it – but for some reason, a week ago, I actually looked for it and bought it. My therapist asked me an important question: “why now“? Why now, when I could have sought it out at any other time over the past few years? I think the answer will come with reading the book. I think that my subconscious knows – that it has always remembered the story and knows why it was powerful and important. Perhaps it made a link with the current material of therapy, and perhaps, as I read, I will discover what that link is.

I have already realised something interesting, just by reading the back cover. It seems that the main protagonist is not Marnie, but a girl called Anna. Which made me immediately think of the start of a story I wrote when younger, that I discovered in an old box of papers recently. I wrote about it in a post called ‘Update and a story by 12 year old me‘. The girl in my story is called Anna too, and at that time, the only link I could think of to the name Anna, led me to believe I might have written it at around the age of 12, even though the style of writing and the handwriting, felt ‘younger’. But now I feel absolutely sure that the link with the name ‘Anna’ comes from ‘When Marnie was there’.

I feel a fair amount of apprehension. There is always the possibility of disappointment: that the book will not be as interesting or as powerful as when I first read it; that I won’t be able to understand why it made such an impression; that I won’t be able to make a link to my therapy. But there is also the possibility of so much more – not least a calm and pleasurable few hours immersed in a story, a luxury I rarely have time for these days.

So enough of writing – for now – I’m off to read about Anna and Marnie! I will write more about them, when I know what there is to tell…..


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When I realised how much therapy has helped me change – Part 3

[Please click on the hyperlinks for Part 2 and Part 1 of this post – the parts follow on from each other.]

Thursday

By the time I arrived at my therapy session, I felt absolutely determined to stay open and vulnerable to whatever it was my therapist had to say. I needed her to explain what she had meant when she said that part of me wanted a replacement mother and that I wasn’t seeing her as herself. The immense fear that her words would undermine the way that I had come to see our relationship, as ‘therapy-mother’ and ‘therapy-daughter’, and therefore undermine what I felt was the basis of the changes that had taken place over the last couple of years, as well as the foundation of ongoing work, was still present. But there was also a determination to accept her words, whatever they meant, and to continue to work with her. I felt a deep trust, and a conviction that she was still just as committed to me, and cared just as much. I was also, of course, hoping that my fear was without foundation.

She smiled, and thanked me for holding on and coming back, despite how I had been feeling. I wish I could remember more of the details of the session, so that I could describe how it all unfolded. But it became evident quite quickly that she had no intention of ‘doing away with therapy-mother’. She was still ‘therapy-mother’; and I should add that she had always been clear, and I had always understood – however painful it felt to try and accept – that this was a different sort of relationship to a biological mother-daughter relationship, and was not a replacement for what was missing either in the past or in the present. Even as she was talking, I was still waiting for the ‘bad news’ which I had been fearing, and had to ask for reassurance on that point in fairly direct terms. I had to feel sure that she had not somehow changed her mind or felt uncomfortable about the role I saw her in – that I thought she saw herself in. I had to feel sure that I could continue to think of her as ‘therapy-mother’ without wondering whether I was deceiving myself. She did reassure me, but that still left the question – what did she mean by her words on the Tuesday, and in particular, what did she mean when she said that I wasn’t seeing her as herself?

***

It turns out that though I had been terrified that what she wanted was to put a little more distance between us, what she actually wanted was for me to allow her to come closer. When she spoke about me not seeing her as she was, she was referring to the fact that I seemed to have a very active ‘relationship’ with her in my head, but often kept her at arms’ length during session. I imagined how sessions would go and had conversations with her in my mind; I sent her long emails describing my dreams or daydreams; I often talked about feeling connected over the weekends. But then in session things would go differently to how I had imagined and that would get in the way of relating to her; when I referenced my dreams I simply presented them rather than engaging with her in trying to understand them; and I often sat in silence, not knowing what to say, unable to simply say what came to mind (or freezing with fear of not having anything to say).

I was relating to a version of her that lived in my head – but what she really wanted was for me to relate to the therapy-mother who sat in front of me three times a week. She wanted me to try and overcome the resistance to therapy that was sometimes present in me, and to try not to shut her out – something I am sure that I subconsciously find a million and one creative ways of doing. She wanted to try and keep more of our work actually in the room, rather than outside it. I asked her if it was a problem that I emailed her with updates or dreams. She said it wasn’t the fact that I emailed the material that was the problem, but what I then did with it (or, by implication, didn’t do with it), when I brought it to her in person.

Her words to me on the Tuesday were a natural consequence of how she had experienced me during the previous week in therapy, and over the last weekend (described in Part 1). After I passive-aggressively resisted working with her on some dreams on the Friday, she admitted that she had then felt unconnected over the weekend; whereas I, for various reasons which she couldn’t have known about, felt extremely close to her. When I addressed her in an email over the weekend in terms that made it clear how connected I felt, it was completely discordant with how she had experienced our last interaction.

As well as being very reassuring (she wasn’t trying to push me away), her words struck me deeply and made a huge impression. Hearing that she sometimes felt kept at arms’ length, and that I sometimes didn’t really engage with her in person, was upsetting because it was the opposite of what I really wanted. It was the opposite of what the more adult, non-resistant parts of me wanted, even if other aspects of myself tried to sabotage therapeutic relationship and change. She gives me her full attention, which is part of herself, for three hours every week; she holds a safe space for me, she accepts me, she cares about me, and she wants to help me help myself to change. She wants to really work with me, to grapple, to engage, to ‘get to grips with’ – I feel ashamed now, thinking that I accused her of sometimes not doing those things, the very next week (more of that to come!). Given all of that, it seemed inconceivable that I should spend more time relating to her in my head, than deeply relating to her in person. For someone who has a dread of loss and running out of time, it was clear to me that I was nevertheless missing out on an enormous amount.

***

After my session, I sent the following email to my therapist (only extracts are given here):

“After today’s session I was amazed (and still am) at how differently this has gone, to how things would have been a couple of years ago. It’s hard to convey how strange but wonderful it feels to know that despite the initial reaction and feelings on Tuesday and Wednesday morning, I felt connected still throughout it all, I was aware of a very deep-seated sense of trust, and felt sure that you were still the same, you hadn’t changed, and you were fundamentally good and well intentioned, and I trusted in that….connection and belief in your ‘goodness’ was strong enough to over-ride those immense issues of survival and the huge fear of extinction/destruction.”

And with regard to my therapist telling me that she had felt unconnected over the preceding weekend (something that would have caused me a great deal of alarm and pain in the past, as I would have felt rejected and would have feared abandonment):

“I think it’s the first time you’ve said you hadn’t felt connected, and again I’m glad you told me – it’s helpful to know that you can sometimes feel that way too (and I think it’s good I don’t find that frightening – because I trust in what you’ve told me so many times, that the connection is there, even when I don’t feel it, so I trust you apply those words to yourself, too)”.

Post-Thursday

Since then,  I have felt determined to try and stay open and vulnerable and not keep my therapist at a distance – though the subconscious is an incredibly powerful thing, as I discovered (anew) in the following week. I have also felt determined to try and keep more of the work in the room (rather than in my head or over email), and to really engage with what I’m bringing, even if it’s only to express the fact that I really want to engage but don’t know where to start – often that’s the first step to getting into a conversation that might otherwise have not happened, or might have been preceded by a lengthy and unhelpful silence. In fact, though it’s difficult to define, I have noticed that this feeling of ‘determination’ (and that does seem to be the best descriptor) is a key factor that enables me to stay in a more vulnerable and engaged place in therapy. I don’t feel as though I am entirely in control of it, and sometimes I think of it as a key characteristic of the more ‘adult’ part of me. But I remember its presence strongly from pivotal moments in therapy last year, and I have felt it repeatedly over the last few weeks. In the context of therapy, it is a word that is linked to many other things in my mind – to commitment, acceptance, courage, vulnerability, and love – but determination seems to be what allows the other things to come to the fore. Or perhaps it destroys the resistance, which tries to hold the other things down.

Ironically, given that one of the triggers for these events centred around my handling of dreams, I had a revealing dream the night before I saw my therapist on the Thursday. I dreamed that I was hiding in the toilets of a large building, from a marauding T-Rex who was about to destroy the crowds of people in a large hall. My immediate association to the T-Rex was that it was my therapist, about to annihilate the foundation of our therapy, and my internal world. But perhaps it would be more accurate to see it as a part of me, as my resistance, preying on myself. Certainly, in the light of what happened next, the picture couldn’t have been more appropriate – my subconscious resistance is no docile, slow-moving, herbivore, but a swift, powerful, and destructive predator.