Life in a Bind – BPD and me

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.

I have a mother – when things shift in therapy

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[This post talks about the uniqueness and importance of ‘mother’, and for me, that has a particular meaning. But for others it may be more appropriate to invest this word with a different meaning – it may relate to a father, grandparent, or adoptive parent, or any other primary caregiver. I don’t mean to exclude by my use of the word; but it is so intrinsic to my own experience and what I’m writing about here, that I cannot avoid it.]

“You can hear something over and over again, but until you hear it at the right time, in the right context, in the right frame of mind and with the right understanding, it makes no impact. You can hear words and you may comprehend their meaning, but it may still not be clear what the words are meant to change, and how . “

That’s a paragraph from a post I wrote two years ago called ‘A new experience of mother – Part 3’. It was one of five posts on the same theme. It continues to surprise me, the way that therapy returns over and over again to the same topics, to the same ground, but in subtly different ways. The return is an indication that there is more to think about, more to say; an indication that there is still something unresolved, and something hidden to unearth. It continues to surprise me that the merest fraction of a degree in the angle at which we look at an issue, can make an enormous difference to our perception, and can lead to a revelation. And that the ‘revelation’ can be both so close in content to what we already knew, and yet so far from it in terms of its impact, that it seems both ludicrous and impossible, not to have seen it any earlier.

Elsewhere in the same post, I wrote the following:

“My therapist often made the point that she was different to my mother, and she made it in numerous ways. She made it by actually being different; by responding in ways I didn’t expect and then drawing my attention to the fact that I’d been anticipating the reaction my mother would have had. She was understanding when I expected judgment; caring when I expected criticism; comforting when I expected shaming. She made the point quite explicitly by saying that therapy offered me  – she offered me – a different experience of mothering. I heard the words, and thought I understood them.”

And so I never expected to come back, two years later, and write what is effectively Part 6 of my series of posts on ‘A new experience of mother’. But I’m returning in order to add something absolutely vital to the things I realised then. Something that arose directly out of thinking about the distress I felt when my therapist did not answer my question about where she would be going on holiday this summer. I wrote about that incident in my post ‘Why therapists frustrate their clients’, but I wanted the realisation that came out of it, to be part of a separate post – this one.

***

When my therapist asked me to think about why it mattered so much to me that she had not answered my question, I said that it wasn’t so much the knowledge itself that was important, but what it would mean if she told me. I told my therapist that “it would mean a little less exclusion. It would mean feeling trusted. It would create a deeper feeling of relationship, and strengthen our bond. It would create another memory. All of those things seemed self-evident, natural, and in need of no further explanation. And yet she still seemed to think there was more to discover.”

Sometimes ideas occur to you in a way that is more like a voice speaking in your head, than your mind thinking a thought. That’s what it was like when all of a sudden, completely out of nowhere, I heard an answer to my therapist’s question about why it mattered and what it would mean. “It means I have a mother”, the voice said, “and that is the most important thing”.

***

I was at home at the time, and it was a couple of hours after session. I stopped, utterly taken aback. What was going on? On the one hand, it immediately felt as though there was a weighty truth in the statement the voice had made. And I already knew I had a therapy-mother – my therapist had been using that terminology (and also the phrase ‘therapy-daughter’) for some time. But on the other hand, there was something not quite right about the statement. The voice said “and that is the most important thing” -but how could that be true? That, right there, seemed to be the voice of my biological mother, who insisted that she was and always would be the most important, the only truly trustworthy person in my life, the person who would love me in a way no one else could ever love me. This seemed to be the voice of the person who elevated mothers, and specifically herself, above every other person and type of relationship I might ever encounter. And I already knew, in so many different ways, what a negative effect on me her narcissism had had. So how could the voice be right, if it seemed to agree with her?

***

The next morning I awoke having had three dreams that felt clearly linked to each other, to the question I had been thinking about, and to the ‘answer’ I’d received. In various ways, the dreams drew attention to three aspects of the mothering I’d received when growing up. They showed me that I had a mother who wanted intimacy with me but at the same time couldn’t cope with it because she could not deal with her own emotions, let alone my own. She left me, therefore, with the sense that she was afraid of me, and that I was a threat to her. They showed me that I had a mother who never wanted me to grow up and was full of nostalgia for the days of my childhood, not seeing or wanting to see who I really was and was growing into. They showed me that I had a mother who wanted to appoint herself as the most significant person in my life, and wanted to exclude others from my affections.

But very importantly, the dreams also showed me something that I could never consciously have accepted as a possibility. They showed me that at one time in my life, even if I couldn’t remember it, I had wanted that intimacy and that exclusivity too, even though I knew that the former would lead to rejection and invalidation, and the latter would be poison. I didn’t always reject my mother and everything she stands for, as forcefully as I have done for the last twenty years or so. I didn’t always reject completely out of hand, any idea that came from her, or any association with her. And I didn’t need to reject everything that sounded like her voice, now. It was possible that she could speak some truth about mothering, even if she herself had not been a good-enough mother.

***

I grudgingly realised that my mother was right – and I never thought I’d say that about her! Having a mother is the most important thing. Mothers are unique, and there is no other relationship like it. Wrong though she was in the way that she interpreted that relationship, its meaning, and its implications, I now believe that she was right about the importance and uniqueness of the relationship. And I’ve read enough articles over the years, about the impact on individuals of losing their mothers, to know that for many people, the importance and uniqueness of that relationship continues well into adulthood, and up to death and beyond.

Two years ago, I came to understand that my therapist was providing a new experience of mothering. I knew my therapist was very different to my mother and I was grateful and full of joy to have a type of mother-daughter relationship with her. But what I didn’t understand until a few weeks ago, was that for the last two years I’ve been holding two somewhat contradictory positions alongside each other. Because while accepting that I had a therapy-mother, I also believed that my mother was wrong about the importance of the mother-daughter relationship. I believed that I didn’t really need a mother, and had never needed one. I knew I had a therapy-mother, but I still thought of myself as being without a mother. On numerous occasions I had caught myself thinking ‘if I had a mother…..’, as if my biological mother were dead, rather than me being emotionally estranged from her.

In placing such an emphasis on my therapist’s difference to my mother, and in deriding so strongly the very concept of the uniqueness and importance of the mother-daughter bond, I was inadvertently preventing the experience I was having with my therapist from becoming a fully healing and transformative experience. She was providing something wonderful – but I couldn’t see it as being the very thing I had lacked for so long, while I still refused to acknowledge the importance and the necessity of what had been lacking. Inevitably, my therapist was providing what I had lacked in a rather different, and a more intensive and more concentrated way to that in which it would have been given through the longer period of childhood and growing up – but she was providing it nonetheless.

***

When I saw my therapist the morning after my ‘answer’ came, along with my dreams, I told her that it finally felt as if something had shifted, and that I had been missing a vital puzzle piece that had now fallen into place. More than that, I had been missing something vital, and things had shifted internally so that somehow I now felt more complete. She said she was very glad the ‘penny had dropped’! I kept repeating to myself, inside my head, ‘I have a mother, I have a mother’, and every repetition was full of joy. Whenever she or I made reference to it, I couldn’t help smiling; I still can’t.

As well as being accepting and validating, I have a mother who is not threatened by me and is not afraid of me; a mother who sees, values, and enjoys the ‘adult me’ as well as the ‘child me’; and I have a mother who does not want or need exclusivity and is confident of her position in my heart. Unconsciously, that was the type of mothering I associated with my therapist feeling comfortable enough to talk to me about her holiday plans, and that is why it was so distressing to feel that that experience was being withheld. But if it hadn’t been, I may not have realised the things I did.

I may not have realised, finally, that in my therapist I have not just a new experience of mothering, but a good-enough mother – and absolutely nothing can take that away from me. I have a mother. The relationship I thought I didn’t need, is in fact vital. The relationship I had been missing, I now have. The experience I thought I would always have to do without, is now a part of me. I know that I will lose her, as the majority of mothers are lost, at one time or another, to their children. And that will be devastating. But not even that can take away from me the fact that what I was missing I am no longer missing, and will never miss again. That is indescribable. I have a mother. It is the most important thing.

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3 thoughts on “I have a mother – when things shift in therapy

  1. I find this concept a little confusing. None of my therapists ever took on that “role”, one even telling me, “but I’m not your mother- this isn’t that kind of relationship”. What we have is a healing relationship, but I didn’t/don’t see therapists as being our “substitute parents”. I’ll never have that mother I want, because I’m no longer a child. Am I missing something?

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    • You’re right, it is confusing, and I’m sorry I haven’t been able to explain it a bit better! It’s also a topic on which I imagine there would be disagreement amongst therapists, depending on the model they followed, their training, etc. Depending on these factors, I think therapists can and do, in some ways, act in place of a parent. But by its nature and circumstances, it has to be a rather different sort of parent – there are boundaries to consider, and there is the fact that as you say, we are no longer children, but adults. All this means that, for example, there have been many occasions when the child part of me has wanted my therapist to act in a particular way (e.g. to hug me) , but my therapist has not done that. She will never have been the one to read me a bedtime story, or to have been there to help me through early bereavement, or to have been there to talk to about bullying etc etc. She will never have been the one to validate me when I was helpless and young and clueless. Those things can be grieved, along with the fact that my biological mother couldn’t do them. But at the same time, though in a different way, my therapist has ‘raised me’. She has done for me, and helped me with, the things I should have absorbed, come to realise, grown into, while I was growing up, but didn’t. She has provided experiences of validation, acceptance, nurturing, conflict resolution, constant caring and non-abandonment, through lots of different situations. She has done that without the physical contact or the very direct reassurance, or constant immersion in a particular ‘culture’, that a child would have received from someone they lived with, but she has done it in a different way. I never had that mother as a child. That will always be the case. But it’s not too late, either for the child still inside me, or for me, and I have it now, from a good-enough-mother. And that good enough relationship has done and is doing the job that could have happened as a child with my biological mother, but didn’t. And it will continue to do the job, because we internalise our therapists (as we might have internalised our biological mothers) and so carry them always with us. (If she’s reading this I hope she realises I’m far far better at the theory than the practice 🙂 ) . We can never go back and have the exact experience we would have received as children. But I think we can receive a version of it, as adults, that is just as real, valid and validating. It comes with many many constraints and differences to biological mothering, but it also has unique aspects that biological mothering doesn’t have. Many therapists will probably never know their own children in the same emotional depth that they know some of their patients, and their children will never see who they are as therapists. (She’s in my head right now, cheekily admonishing me for not actually taking my own words to heart and using them to help me lessen my envy of her daughters…). I think the more time has gone on, the less black and white and the less ‘categorised’ I see things as being. I think there are many types of mothers – biological, adoptive, fostering, grandparents who are primary care givers etc. Therapy-mothers are a rather unique variant! Just as there are many types of love, and although the ancient Greeks liked to try and categorise and define them, I’ve kind of given up on that idea! I don’t know if any of that helps at all…..!

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