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 made what looked like a very small decision last week, but it felt as though it carried particular significance.
A few years ago I was one of a number of runners up in a writing competition, and part of my prize was a book on particular hobby – for the sake of anonymising details of this story, let’s say it was baking! I’m not a baker, and it’s not something I can see myself developing an interest in, in the foreseeable future. However, I am aware that one of my therapist’s daughters is a keen baker, and I thought of her as soon as I saw the book.
Over the last few years I have wondered, on and off, about what to do with the book. I’ve tried to think of friends of mine who might appreciate it and only came up with one name. A number of times I was on the verge of mentioning it to that friend, but something always held me back.
Every time I saw it on my shelf I would think of my therapist’s daughter, and how much I thought she might like it. Perhaps I simply wanted to hold onto any reminder of my therapist, however oblique, and however uncomfortable (because after all, the book was also a reminder of the family of which I was not a part). Part of me wondered whether one day, in the far distant future, I might actually take up baking myself. I know that that part of myself was the one that wanted to please and thought that the way to do so was to conform to another’s way of being, or a way of being that was admired or approved of. My therapist is also a baker, and I imagined this was a precious link between her and her daughter, something that she would observe in her daughter, and feel moved, or proud. I have an enormous ache for her to feel proud of me, to feel moved by me.
On the other hand, the part of me that indulges fantasy still held onto the hope and the desire that I might actually be able to give the book to my therapist to give to her daughter. The logical part of my brain knows how unrealistic that is, and also how strange and uncomfortable that could be, from the point of view of my therapist’s daughter. But my mind was holding onto the idea of a tangible expression of my desire to belong to and be a part of my therapist’s family – a hope and desire that is a perfectly legitimate and interesting subject for discussion in therapy, but one that cannot get played out in reality, because it is at odds with reality. It doesn’t fit with the facts, or with what is possible.
Last week I decided to give the book to the daughter of a friend of mine, who though still at primary school, loves to bake and is already impressively proficient at it! Giving it to ‘a daughter’ (albeit not my therapist’s daughter) rather than to a friend, somehow felt like the right thing to do. It made me more conscious of the ‘divided role’ my therapist’s daughters play in my fantasies, as either sisters, or daughters. But more than that, I was aware that giving away the book felt like a significant parting – a parting with a way of thinking and being, as well as a parting with an object. It signified acceptance of reality as it is, and the impossibility of the fantasy I had held on to. It is one thing to know reality, and another thing to attempt to come to terms with it. Giving away the book was a small victory, but it wasn’t completely easy and straightforward, even after all this time and work – there was a tug, a wrench, in giving it away, even though I knew I needed to do it.
Giving the book away also signified acceptance of the fact that the reality of my relationship with my therapist does not in any way rest or depend on these oblique and tangible connections, which have little meaning in the context of the relationship, and neither do they add anything to it. The only things that carry weight and create a greater sense of internalisation of the relationship, are the things that transpire in the room or are closely connected with them. That might include tangible objects (for example, the stone my therapist gave me, or perhaps objects I have given to her), but on the whole they live in the interactions, moments, and memories shared, and the ways those become absorbed into oneself.
The decision I made last week therefore felt as though it flowed out of the work I was doing in therapy just before Christmas, both in relation to acceptance of the nature of the therapeutic relationship (including its time-limited aspect), and the decision to ask my therapist to destroy my ex-therapist’s notes of our sessions, without me reading them (a decision almost three years in the making, while my therapist acted as the ‘custodian’ of the notes for me). It felt like a small victory, and both a sign of and an outpouring from the larger internal victory that had come before. Though I was not consciously trying to do ‘therapeutic work’ over the Christmas therapy break – and in fact I was trying to take a break from it! – it’s good to know, through small victories such as this, that the work continues anyway, in the subconscious. Much as, I imagine, mysterious things were happening underground which led to my first snowdrop appearing in my garden, just a few days after the new year……….
My therapist and I spent a number of sessions discussing what might lie behind my decision to obtain a copy of the notes, what meaning it might carry, and how I should come to a decision about whether or not to read the notes. Jane and I only saw each other for fifteen sessions, as the counselling service she worked for only offered short term therapy. Though I tried to enter private therapy with her a few months later, she decided to take early retirement for health and family reasons, and the hope of seeing her again, never came to pass. In a number of different ways, therefore, our work together was artificially constrained and cut short, in ways that perhaps neither of us would have chosen, and some of which we could not have foreseen.
Obtaining the notes was a way of exercising control over this particular ‘ending’ in a way that I couldn’t over previous endings. It was a way of guarding against the spectre of regret if I didn’t ‘save’ the notes and could never read them, and against the fear that I would lose my memories of Jane and our sessions, in the course of time. The notes held the possibility of gaining a glimpse into her thoughts, and a validation of my struggles. They held the possibility of seeing myself through her eyes, and the hope that she would be the non-distorted mirror that my parents never were.
But I also knew that the notes held the possibility of disappointment; of not finding what I was hoping for, or of finding things that would be hard to understand, difficult to accept, and impossible to go back and query or clarify. I knew that they held not just the possibility, but the likelihood that reading them would do more harm than good. Having taken eighteen months to fully grieve losing Jane, and having reached a state of acceptance and being able to treasure and feel nourished by positive memories, it was difficult to see any way in which reading the notes could add, rather than detract, from that. And yet, the draw towards reading them was very strong. So strong, in fact, that I put the notes in an envelope and gave them to my therapist, asking her to keep them safe for me, until such time as I made a decision about whether or not to read them. That session, when I gave her the notes, was a wonderfully connecting hour – I had a desire, which she seemed to share, that reading the notes should be something that, if we did it, we should do together. That the role of the notes was to be worked out within my therapy and in the context of our relationship, and not outside it.
My therapist didn’t press the point, but I knew that her view was that I didn’t need to read the notes. That my memories of my relationship with Jane, my experience of my sessions with her, was enough, and would sustain me, and would be there for me to call on internally. Even now, my therapist still points out that I put a great deal of emphasis on the external, rather than being nourished by my ‘internal objects’. It reminds me of a section of a podcast I listened to recently by the wonderful ‘This Jungian Life’, on the subject of ‘Slobs’! In a discussion about hoarding, and the value placed on external objects, the point was made that we have the tendency to want to ‘concretise’, and it can be difficult to let things go and to appreciate that there is a space between an object and the feelings that are connected with it – the feelings do not depend on the object for their existence. Jungian analyst Joseph Lee made the point that sometimes we do not have “a confidence in our psyche’s ability to keep us in relationship to the thoughts and memories that accrete around the objects; so we falsely fear that if the object goes away then my feelings and memories that relate to the object will no longer be accessible to me “.
A similar point was made incredibly beautifully and poignantly by blogger ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul’ who commented on Part 1 of my series of posts. I will quote parts of her comment here, again, as when reading them back this evening they seemed to encapsulate entirely and truly the nature of my dilemma, in a way that I couldn’t completely understand and certainly wasn’t ready to accept at that time, but see with much greater clarity, now:
“What is true, whether we like it or not, is relationships change. Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes…..Perhaps another question may be: Am I fighting acceptance of what is? If the search is to find out whether or not you were special, what was real or not in the therapeutic relationship, the notes may not tell you that……..If you had a good relationship, remember the good memories. When it is all said and done, what we truly remember years later is the essence of someone and that is what matters. When you are old, good memories do come back on their own when you least expect them to. The task at hand is learning acceptance, not fighting it, and learning to let go of what was and cherish that as well as moving into the present, day by day and to keep learning and growing. It is never easy. Nature teaches us this is the pattern- the seasons come and they go. That doesn’t mean there has to be forgetting. It just means there is only so much we can deal with effectively in the present or enjoy.”
She said of her comment ‘I usually don’t do this [comment at length], but I feel you are at a crossroads in your growth’. She was right – and I think that my positive decision to trust my therapist, to focus on our therapy, and to put aside Jane’s notes at least for a time, was a key turning point and the start of what soon became a period of vital change and insights in my therapy.
I can see now, that my decision to obtain Jane’s notes, and also to postpone reading them, had much more to do with my current therapy, than it had to do with my therapy with Jane. Whatever worries, fears, anxieties, and motivations that I felt I had in relation to the notes and to Jane, they might have been real but they also represented the same set of feelings, but magnified, in relation to my current therapist. And absolutely core to that set of feelings, was the question posed by ‘Reflections’: “Am I fighting acceptance of what is?”
I had another two and a half years of therapy to go before I could truly experience, and not just intellectually be aware of, the answer to that question. Two and a half years of fighting acceptance of what is. And then a serious act of sabotage to the therapeutic relationship in the middle of a period of important dreams and active imaginations, propelled me into a period of hard but rewarding work, and significant realisations. As described in ‘Therapy, choice, and our internal fight’, I realized that:
“Every time I choose to confront the part of me that wants to stay stuck, every time I make conscious efforts to feel better rather than accepting my place in the pit of despair and closing my mind off to other possibilities – I am actively accepting, all over again, the inevitable truth that I am changing and that therapy will end. “
“Ultimately, radical acceptance of reality as it is, is what’s left when my Resistance fades away”.
Two and half years is a long time, but I’m learning that working with the subconscious is a tricky and time-consuming business, and it is not just the conscious parts of my personality that can be stubborn! I need no more evidence of the incredible power of the subconscious, than the fact that the act of sabotage to my therapy that I mentioned, took place just hours after I came to a very important decision – the decision, finally, two and half years later, to ask my therapist to shred Jane’s notes, without me reading them. I realized that I had reached the point where I could trust in my memories of Jane, and what I carried of her, within me. I could trust my internal sense of the relationship I had had with her, and that was enough for me. I had reached the point where I could see clearly that what we experienced together in our sessions, was what was ultimately real, and was what constituted our relationship. What we created between us was the only reality that mattered and that could meaningful for me, and I was finally able to let go of the possibilities (both for good and for ill) that I used to think were contained within the notes.
Dimly, at the back of my mind, I was aware that there was an important lesson in there that I could transfer to my current therapeutic relationship. In the back of my mind I knew that this decision had come about not because of anything to do with Jane, but because of progress within my current therapy. In the back of my mind was a realization that the reality and significance of my therapeutic relationship lay in mine and my therapist’s direct experiences of each other, and that I needed nothing outside of this to confirm the reality and significance of that relationship, either now or in the future. But I didn’t consciously reach for that lesson, and I didn’t bring that realization into my awareness. And hours later I found myself, for the first time in eighteen months, engaged in a serious act of internet sleuthing as regards my therapist. A serious act of looking for something outside my direct experience of the relationship, to make it somehow more real, and longer lasting. A last-ditch attempt by my subconscious either to subvert the realization, or, if one were to be charitable to it, to hasten its awareness. Though in the past I have fought my therapist’s emphasis on the powerful agency of my subconscious, this time I had absolutely no doubt of its role in this incident, and in the connection of those two events – my decision to let go of Jane’s notes, and my subversion of the equivalent path with regard to my therapy.
When I did finally step onto that path, and when I did finally transfer that lesson, this is what I became aware of, and it bears a striking resemblance to what ‘Reflections of a Mindful Heart and Soul’ wrote to me, two and half years ago:
“It seems to me now that I can choose to focus either on being, or on remembering, but I cannot give equal attention to both. My heart has to be turned toward one or the other. The more I focus on gathering memories, the less I focus on immediate relating, and the less I’m able to internalise her. Ultimately, my deepest desire is for the therapy and the relationship to be something that I am, not just something I remember. And for that I need to accept that the remembering may consist primarily in seeing her and hearing her in who and what I am becoming, knowing that what I’m seeing is her influence, and what I’m hearing is her voice, woven into my thoughts.”
I told my therapist I would like to destroy Jane’s notes, that I was ready to let them go. She asked if I wanted to do it, and I said that I was happy for her to shred them. She said they would go on her compost heap along with all her other shredded paper – I think that’s a rather fitting end for them, considering plants and gardens are an important point of connection between us, and my therapist often uses garden related metaphors in our work. I like the idea of Jane’s shredded notes, eventually helping my therapist’s garden to grow! My work with Jane was the starting point and catalyst for my current therapeutic work, and she was also the one who referred me on to my therapist.
A number of readers and bloggers said at the time, that they were interested in how the tale of this thing that I had done, would eventually turn out, and that they were contemplating a similar course of action, or were caught in a similar dilemma. If any of them are still reading, I’m sorry it’s taken this long to come to a resolution! But I also hope this resolution is an encouragement – an encouragement to look within and beyond the immediate desire to take a course of action, and an encouragement to wait until you reach your own conviction, however long that may be. And an encouragement I hope, that however scary it may be, to quote ‘Reflections’, “Who we are, and who we are becoming, changes”.